California Proposition 65: What will Change for US Chocolate Lovers and Cocoa Farmers in Latin America?

Author Francisco Gomez

VP Strategic Procurement and Agricultural Development, Luker Chocolate
WCF Board Member
Photo by Luker Chocolate

California’s Proposition 65 is a long-standing law that has important effects on small cocoa producers in Latin America and chocolate choices available in U.S. stores. The law has not received as much attention as EU regulations recently reviewed.

Proposition 65 regulates the presence of some potentially dangerous contaminants in different products, including chocolate. Chocolate and every product made with cocoa can contain low levels of cadmium and lead. These metals, which are more prevalent in Latin American young volcanic soils, occur naturally and are absorbed by cocoa trees.

After several years of negotiations, an agreement was reached that determines the levels of cadmium and lead for chocolate sold in California, regardless of its origin. As in Europe, various levels of lead and cadmium are accepted in California, depending on the percentage of cocoa (see table 1). The Californian regulation goes further than EU standards in some cases. For example, dark chocolate with more than 70% cocoa content, which is usually produced with fine flavor cocoa from Latin America, is currently subject to a limit of 0.45 ppm in California, which is more stringent than the 0.8 ppm European limit.

Table 1:

Composition of the chocolate Max lead level (in ppm – parts per million) Max cadmium level (ppm)
Up to 65% cocoa content 0.100 0.400
Between 65% and 95% cocoa content 0.150 0.450
More than 95% cocoa content 0.225 0.960

By the year 2024, these limits will become even more severe.

Why should all chocolate lovers care?

Proposition 65 has a spill over effect: for instance, many European companies sell their products in California and will adopt the stringent standards across their range to streamline production. Although the rest of the United States does not have Proposition 65 limitations, many US-based chocolate manufacturers will also elect not to carry two different ranges of products.

The big difference between the two regulations is that the EU does not allow the sale of products above cadmium limits to the final consumer, while the agreement reached in California allows products with cadmium and lead above the established limits to be sold, provided that they are labelled with a health risk warning.

These European and Californian regulations for cadmium content have hampered commercialization of cocoa and chocolate. They have had a strong effect on small producers in Latin America who have made tremendous efforts in the last few years to offer fine flavor cocoa to the American and European markets. Parallel to this regulatory movement, the Codex Alimentarius of global food standards is also placing limits on cadmium content, which means that other countries will undoubtedly follow with their own regulations.

I therefore urge all efforts and research work for the mitigation and control of cadmium levels in cocoa to be placed at the top of government and international cooperation agendas. I also urge chocolate companies to join these research efforts, with the understanding that together we can achieve progress that can help all the smallholder farmers who are affected, while continuing to ensure the safety of our consumers.