It looks like chocolate — but is it? 

If you walk into any drug or grocery store this month and troll the surplus Easter candy section, you might find Too Tall Bunny.

Legally, Too Tall Bunny isn’t chocolate at all, but on first glance it’s hard to tell. The candy rabbit is glossy and brown. Its box depicts rabbits in cute basketball uniforms, engaging in "Easter Madness." It’s six ounces of edibility with a vaguely malted taste and consistency, with its box declaring it made of "hollow double crisp." "Chocolate" is nowhere to be found on the package.

According to standards set out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, chocolate must contain cocoa butter. Too Tall Bunny contains cocoa, but the fat used to make the candy could be palm kernel oil, palm, soybean or cottonseed oil, according to its ingredients list.

It is exactly the type of product that could be called "chocolate" if the FDA approves a proposal by a coalition of food industry groups, including the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. The prospect has some local chocolate companies hopping mad.

"It goes against all of the positive things that are happening with foods in general," said Gary Guittard, owner of Burlingame’s Guittard Chocolate Co., a maker of chocolate sold to both confectioners and the public. "[It would] confuse the customer with no real added benefits."

He said the proposal, spearheaded by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and supported by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association and 10 other food groups, would essentially allow chocolate makers to substitute far cheaper fats for cocoa butter, diluting the idea of what chocolate should be.

Cocoa butter costs approximately $2.50 a pound compared with vegetable oil’s $0.70 a pound, said Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. Director of Research and Development Steve Genzoli, who said Ghirardelli opposes changes to the "identity" of chocolate.

"In our mind, cocoa butter is a key ingredient to make chocolate. Replacing it with some other form of vegetable oil does not improve quality," Genzoli said.

The proposal would not require any chocolate maker to change its formula, but could allow for it, Grocery Manufacturer’s Association Senior Director of Food Labeling and Standards Regina Hildwine said.

It could also allow for other foods not called chocolate until now to boast the name. That may drive some purists nuts, but whether the typical consumer is bothered by it is open to debate.

It is not only the identity of chocolate that is at issue. Hildwine said her organization’s proposal, outlined in a petition to the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture,

doesn’t single out chocolate, and would impact a broad array of foods currently covered under what are called the federal "standards of identity." The standards constitute a decades-old policy that affects some foods, such as mayonnaise and macaroni, but not others, such as macaroni and cheese.

Makers of foods covered under the standards face an undue burden to add new ingredients or new manufacturing methods compared to the non-standardized foods, Hildwine said. The current standards make it difficult for companies to innovate in ways that could create new tastes, health benefits or prices that consumers may want, she said, because each change must be pursued through a long regulatory process.

"Those individual approvals really do restrict market opportunities for companies," she said. "Making case-by-case modifications, it’s onerous to food companies and it’s also burdensome for the FDA. The critic who says, ‘I don’t like the idea of that [changing the standards],’ there could be another consumer who says that they equally … like the idea of that."

The Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association said in a statement that, "CMA’s view is that now is an appropriate time for FDA to update the standards of identity for all foods. We want to emphasize that by co-signing the food industry petition, CMA has not endorsed any particular change to the standards of identity for chocolate products. The petition in its current form is likely to be just the beginning of a long regulatory process."

Asked for comment, Hershey Co. (HSY) spokesman Kirk Saville referred a reporter to the CMA statement. Rick Gates, VP of Hershey subsidiary Artisan Confections Co., which sells chocolate under the Scharffen Berger, Dagoba and Joseph Schmidt names, said his company has no intention of changing its ingredients.

Chocolate Stats

» $1.4 billion — amount of cocoa and cocoa products used by the U.S. chocolate industry in 2005

» 65,000 — number of jobs in the U.S. generated by chocolate and confectionary products

» 7 million pounds a day — amount of sugar used by chocolate and confectionary manufacturers

» 3 million pounds per day — amount of milk and milk products used by chocolate and confectionary manufacturers

* Source: Chocolate

Manufacturers Association

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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