Belgian chocolate makers seek protection from copycats
Belgian chocolate makers believe their renowned pralines should have similar protection to that enjoyed by French champagne or Italy's Parma ham.

They want the term "Belgian chocolate" to be their exclusive preserve and also want to crack down on foreign rivals dressing up their products as "Belgian style" or of a "Belgian recipe".

Copycats, they say, eat into sales and undermine a stamp of quality built up over the century since Jean Neuhaus invented the hard-shelled, cream-filled chocolate, the praline, in 1912.

The industry federation will meet regional governments from next month to decide how Belgium might apply to the European Union to protect Belgian chocolates or perhaps seek a trademark to safeguard their treats.

"What makes us sad is that very often the copies are not up to the standard of the originals," Jos Linkens, chief executive of Neuhaus, told Reuters in an interview.

"If top chocolatiers around the world copied us, perhaps we would be happy. We don't want the image of quality to suffer," said Linkens, who is also president of Belgian biscuit, chocolate and confectionery federation Choprabisco.

Belgium is proud of its mastery of chocolate. It boasts more than 200 chocolate firms, over 2,000 chocolate stores and museums, tours and workshops, such as the Brussels museum of cocoa and chocolate.

Belgians say their years of experience has created a pool of chocolate-making talent, and success is a result of the skill of master chefs devising new cream fillings, rather than machines.

At Neuhaus, workers fill buckets with pralines made imperfect by air bubbles or messy stripes while others make caramel tubes by hand or whip up chocolate for use in giant eggs and bunnies for Easter.

Despite their quality, like other luxury items, sales of Belgian chocolates have stagnated or slipped in mature Europe and North America, but compensate for that with roaring growth in emerging markets.

Overall exports of Belgian pralines rose just 1 percent between 2007 and 2011, but shot up 60 percent in Asia and 82 percent in Africa.

Sales to Asia in 2011 were three times their level a decade earlier. Individual chocolate makers talk of expansion in China and India last year of up to 50 percent.

And there is yet more scope for growth, with the average Chinese person eating less than 100 grams (3-1/2 ounces) of chocolate per year against between 6 and 10 kg (13-22 lb) for Europeans, Linkens said.

The surging demand in new markets has left foreign producers eager for a share of the market, tempting some to claim they too are making Belgian chocolates.

Guy Gallet, secretary general of Choprabisco, has a crate-load of "Belgian chocolate" boxes he and travelling Belgian executives have found on their travels. They include examples from Canada, China, Hungary, Ireland and Malaysia.


Switzerland, famous for its milk chocolate, has been more active in its protection of domestic brands.

They too have seen sharp growth in Asia, with sales rising by 49 percent in value terms last year to China and by 52 percent to India.

But the CHOCOSUISSE federation of chocolate makers, has trademarked the terms "Swiss" and "Switzerland" in the European Union, the United States and Canada. And it works to enforce those rights.