The dudes at the Beauty Brains tweeted a link to an article in the Huffington Post in which the American cosmetic industry was accused of acting in an untrustworthy manner over the issue of reforms to the cosmetic industry. What is going on?
It has to be said that lobbying by special interest groups has a much higher profile in the states than it does in Europe, although it certainly is a pretty well developed industry this side of the Atlantic, even if it is a bit more discrete. In the US Washington is a permanent home to pressure groups of various types and they are staffed by people who quite simply and openly make a living from these kinds of shenanigans. And they often work. My favourite example was how the dairy industry managed, for a time, to oblige manufacturers of margarine to include the yellow colouring separately from the margarine itself so that the synthetic product which is white would not be mistaken for the real thing.
So well funded groups like the Personal Care Products Council which pushes for the industry interest and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics have to be taken seriously for the influence they can wield. (The name Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a bit of a misnomer, but the Campaign to Misinform the Public about Non Existent Risks of Cosmetics would probably not attract many donations.) These kinds of organisation certainly can’t be trusted as sources of objective information so I can sympathise if the FDA genuinely are getting fed up with being the target of their blandishments.
But legislation is made by humans. Even if we could somehow find a way of stopping people with a vested interest trying to influence the outcome of the government’s deliberations, the results would still be imperfect. How do the regimes on either side of the Atlantic actually compare?
Well for a start both of them do the most important thing of making sure that cosmetic products are safe. They are also pretty consistent with each other. There are a few details of the regulations that can have an impact, but almost all of the time a cosmetic product that is acceptable in one market will be okay in the other. There is no need for Europeans to take their products with them on prolonged trips to the States. Indeed there is no reason for American consumers to buy European products rather than US ones – which would be the logical thing to do if you listened to the US based scare mongers.
But there are differences that do matter between the two markets. The European regulations, especially now that they have been revised to be a lot more prescriptive, are a significant burden on small companies. If you want to start a new cosmetic company you would be much better off in the US. Americans are famously litigious, so you had better make sure your product is safe and effective if you want to avoid a law suit from a disgruntled customer but meeting the FDA’s regulations is a lot more straight forward.
(I except California here, where Proposition 65 makes the manufacture and sale of cosmetics if anything even more difficult than in Europe.)
In Europe you have to notify your products on a database, put together a file of supporting data and get somebody with a science degree to sign it off as safe. None of these are insurmountable barriers of course, and they are all well meant requirements. One of the less obvious ways that small companies are discriminated against is that to manufacture cosmetics following European requirements means you really need the support of your raw material suppliers. Needless to say, this is not an issue for Proctor and Gamble. It might be a lot more work for Wanda from Winchester or Svetlana from Sofia. Anything that makes it harder for new entrants to challenge the existing players is in the long run a bad thing for consumers. It is a shame that the regulations make no provision to be easier on small operators.
So if I had a choice I’d probably settle for something similar to the EU regulations but with some get outs for the small operators. I have a feeling these are the last people the lobby groups in Washington care about.