George Orwell’s most famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, uses themes from life in the Soviet Union and wartime Britain. The main character, Winston Smith, describes his daily life in the fictitious continent of Oceania, under the control of Big Brother. One of the government ministries that rule everyday life in the story is the Ministry of Plenty, which controls Oceania’s planned economy. It oversees public access to food, supplies and, ultimately, rationing. Such are the meagre rations that Smith is forced to buy and consume synthetic products, such as fake chocolate.
Orwell’s work, whilst written as fiction, is based in part on fact. Post-war Europe was tough, with rationing in place and many towns and cities struggling to return to a life more ordinary. Rationing remained in force until 1954, and it was due to the high price of chocolate on the black market that one of the world’s most famous products was created when an Italian pastry maker named Pietro Ferrero used hazelnuts to bulk up his chocolate spread. His creation was called Pasta Gianduja; today known as Nutella.
Although rationing has become a thing of our grandparents’ childhood stories, fake chocolate is still around today, and with International Chocolate Day on 7th July giving us all an excuse to indulge, we should be on our guard that we’re buying – and, more importantly, consuming – is the real deal.
There are some people who’ll consider chocolate fake if it’s not made with the most important component: cocoa butter. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration states that any product that doesn’t use cocoa butter cannot call itself chocolate, thus giving rise to the term ‘candy’. Whether or not it’s the rising cost of bona fide raw ingredients that drives producers to use cheaper substitutes, there’s enough of a problem for genuine chocolatiers to worry about the damage to their brands through counterfeit products.
In the past few years, UK Trading Standards have seized batches of famous-branded fake chocolate bars from stores up and down the country. Whilst in many cases the packaging looks realistic – in fact, in many instances it’s genuine – the product itself is substandard. At best, it may be a cheap bar of chocolate with an expensive brand’s wrapping; at worst an imitation product completely. Any food product where you cannot trace back the manufacturing process poses a potential consumer health risk.
Some countries take this very seriously indeed. Chocolate is big business in Switzerland, for instance, where Chocosuisse, the umbrella organization of the Swiss chocolate industry, is quick to prevent non-Swiss manufacturers from implying a link with Switzerland, and thus the quality of the product within.
In February 2014, Europol and Interpol reported they’d seized over 80,000 counterfeit biscuit and chocolate bars in a series of raids, proving that the problem is still as big as ever; whilst just three months ago in March it as announced that Operation Opson had resulted in the biggest ever haul of counterfeit food and drink across 57 countries, amounting to over 10,000 tons and one million liters of illegal products being removed from harm for everyday consumers. Whilst the authorities work tirelessly to detect illegal products like chocolate, the amount they actually find and seize is just the tip of a big iceberg, and not a deterrent at all for the criminals.
A search on one of the world’s most popular online marketplaces displays a number of results that look, on the face of it, suspicious. Whether it’s because of the low price or the quantities that they can be supplied in, there’s no doubt that the source of the goods is questionable at best; illegal and potentially dangerous at worst.
So how do we know we’re buying the real deal? You can be pretty sure the major supermarket chains will have bought their stock direct from the manufacturer. If in doubt, then all food products have to carry a customer care number in the back, so give them a call and they should be able to set your mind at rest.
The final words on counterfeiting belong to Orwell. Reaching into his childhood memory, he tries to describe the feelings that his hero of Nineteen-Eighty-Four has when he finally tastes real chocolate again:
“She broke the chocolate in half and gave one of the pieces to Winston. Even before he had taken it he knew by the smell that it was very unusual. Chocolate normally was dull-brown crumbly stuff that tasted, as nearly as one could describe it, like the smoke of a rubbish fire, but at some time or another he had tasted chocolate like the piece she had given him. The first whiff of its scent had stirred up some memory which he could not pin down, but which was powerful and troubling.”