Are you one of those who see Europe as a complex and ineffective, even unfair monster? Of those who imagine the European Commission as a den of bureaucrats, producing obscure texts in defiance of the interests of the citizens you are? Come and meet Salvatore D’Acunto. He heads the Unit in charge of cosmetics at the European Commission. A diplomat as much as a civil servant, he chooses his words but speaks clearly when it comes to presenting his plea for Europe: much is being done for consumer protection, particularly in the cosmetics sector; denying it and having a destructive approach would be a historical crime.
He now lives in Brussels, but is Italian by origin, a “composed” Italian, he says: “I was born in the North, in Parma, but I am of Neapolitan origin, therefore from the South, and I lived and studied in Rome, in central Italy. And I am very proud to have in my history the three components of Italy, which are often presented as divided.” Salvatore D’Acunto is in a way the whole of Italy reunited into one man, for whom it was logical to add the European dimension to its three original components. Today, he calls himself Italian-European…
An exciting job at the Commission
He says he had no clear vocation when he was young. He began his career with law studies, and it was when his family moved to Brussels that he became interested in the world of the European Union. With two master’s degrees in hand, one in European law and the other in international relations, he passed a competition to enter the European Commission and succeeded at the first attempt (“luck”, he said!). However, he also succeeded in a similar way a little later a selection to become Head of Unit.
“It is frankly an exciting job to be a European civil servant. When I started in 1992, there were still only 12 member countries. Today, the number has more than doubled, and of course, the work has changed a lot. I’ve taken care of a lot of different things.”
It was at the heart of the drafting of the so-called Bolkestein Directive on services, and also dealt with passenger rights: “It is a subject that fascinated me, especially from the perspective of consumers and the fundamental rights of users. That was the time when there were volcanic eruptions that left millions of passengers on the ground,” he recalls. “Ways had to be found to help them in a practical way, but also to protect their rights, and the European system is the only one in the world that guarantees the rights of air, but also rail ans maritime users.”
His functions then led him to the agri-food and pharmaceutical industry sector, before becoming head of the Unit in charge of cosmetics and medical devices at the Directorate General for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG Grow).
Its service includes about twenty people, a little more than half of them for medical devices.
A lawyer guided by scientists
“I have no scientific background, let alone a cosmetic background, but it is a bit like the destiny of a European civil servant to adapt to internal mobility,” he emphasizes. And he applies, for cosmetics, the principles that have always prevailed in his European activities.
“Our job is not only to promote European industry. Of course, we must ensure that the sector as a whole can prosper. But we do not give it precedence over the consumer. What we do is always the result of an analysis that includes all the elements. Consumer protection is a fundamental pillar of the Commission’s action, and even more so when health or environmental protection is at stake.”
And as far as cosmetics are concerned, "any measure that is taken at the regulatory level, whether a prohibition, restriction or authorisation of an ingredient, is based solely on scientific analysis that takes into account a high level of consumer protection. This is of course a political decision, since it is taken by an institution, but which does not deviate from the conclusions of the Scientific Committee (editor’s note: the SCSC is a committee of independent experts in charge of evaluating the safety of cosmetic ingredients for the European Commission). And I, a lawyer, would never dare, even marginally, question what scientists say."
The work of Salvatore D’Acunto’s department is therefore focused on translating these scientific analyses into rules, articles, paragraphs, annexes of regulations… with the appropriate terminology mastered by lawyers, so that ambiguity is avoided as much as possible and total harmony between the scientific and the legal aspects is ensured. In any case, consumer safety is essential.
The balance in the action
But aren’t these decisions strongly influenced by industry lobbies that are very present in Brussels?
“The representation of the interests of a category, sector, industry or sole proprietorship is legitimate. I have always had a very open dialogue with industry AND consumers. What is important is to be transparent, first, and then frank, by clearly explaining to each of our interlocutors what can and cannot be done, and finally to find a balance between the different legitimate positions”.
Salvatore D’Acunto’s services work in constant dialogue with all interested parties: representatives of civil society, NGOs, consumer and environmental associations, representatives of industry and ingredient suppliers…: “We have a very wide and diversified range of participants in our meetings. Obviously, a decision cannot always be unanimously adopted. Sometimes we have complaints on one side, sometimes on the other, sometimes on all sides. Which can be a very good signal that we have found the balance.”
So yes, lobbies do exist, but they are regulated, he concludes. “Industry is obviously a qualified part of this dialogue, but it is only a part”. As the reminder, the Commission services cannot discuss with associations that are not registered in the European register of interest holders, so that the dialogue is completely open and transparent.
“This unit that has been entrusted to me really straddles two dimensions,” adds Salvatore D’Acunto, "the industrial policy dimension on the one hand and the consumer health protection dimension on the other. And it always has been, regardless of which Directorate it reports to. We must therefore always find the right balance and measure, but always taking into account the first whereas of the Cosmetics Regulation (editor’s note: Regulation 1223/2009), that is, by ensuring a very high level of consumer protection. This is the basic principle of our policy and it is also our line of conduct in our daily work."
Supervision of cosmetic ingredients
With regard to cosmetic products, Salvatore D’Acunto is first of all involved in the day-to-day management of ingredients, through the regular updating of the annexes to the Cosmetics Regulation, which list the different types of substances: those that are prohibited, those for which restrictions are provided (for example, use is possible up to a certain concentration level and not more), and those that can be used only if they have been previously authorised (this is the case for colourants, preservatives and UV filters).
To establish the need to amend an annex to the Regulation, the Commission services regularly seek the opinion of the SCCS. Salvatore D’Acunto explains: “We give a formal mandate to the Scientific Committee: we have the substance X, we ask it if its use is safe, if it is safe up to a certain concentration, or if on the contrary it is not safe at all and that it should be prohibited. The trigger for this request comes either from industry when it wants to introduce a new substance, or from a Member State or consumer organisation that wants a new restriction or ban…”
It is the interested party that provides data to support its request. Indeed, the Commission rarely consults the Scientific Committee on its own initiative, but always on the basis of a sufficiently detailed and robust dossier in terms of scientific data, clinical trials, etc.
This formal step is followed by a series of informal contacts to monitor the progress of the dossier, possibly to complete or clarify it until the Committee has delivered its opinion. This is followed by a discussion in the Standing Committee on Cosmetic Products: “It is not the Commission alone that adopts the regulatory measures, but a formal vote of the Member States by a double qualified majority”, explains Salvatore D’Acunto. And it is only after this vote that the Commission can implement the provision.
“It is not done at the back of our offices in an obscure way, it is done in a completely transparent way with other interested parties and by a formal vote at Member State level”.
A process that also explains why some expected decisions take quite a long time to be made.
Salvatore D’Acunto explains this apparent slowness: “Consideration should be given to the time required to receive data, to submit a mandate to the SCCS which needs at least six months to arrive at a draft opinion, which should then be published to give interested parties an opportunity to make comments. Then, once the SCCS has issued its final opinion, draft Regulations are prepared to amend the annexes and submitted to interested parties in the working group. It is also necessary to go through an internal consultation phase within the Commission, with DG Environment, DG Health, the Legal Service, the Secretariat General, etc. When this phase is completed, the draft provision must be notified at the international level to the World Trade Organisation. And here, we have to wait two months to give third countries the opportunity to react. And only then can the Standing Committee vote. The voted text is in English: it must then be translated into all European languages, which is another step forward. After the vote, there is also the period of control by the Parliament and the Council of the Member States. Both institutions have three months to raise an objection. Between the vote and adoption by the Commission, it is difficult to count less than six months, because there are always deadlines to send the document and receive it, then give it to the College of Commissioners for adoption… I know it may seem very long and technocratic, but it’s provided for in the treaty.”
Indeed, the process is not immediate. Especially since it may be further lengthened by the need to gather additional scientific data or by political deadlock, particularly on the most “sensitive” ingredients when Member State representatives are unable to reach agreement, as has long been the case for CMR substances (Carcinogens, Mutagens or substances toxic to Reproduction). But it is also a guarantee that at the end of the process, a thoughtful, scientifically justified decision will be made with the best possible consensus.
The follow-up of horizontal topics
They do not concern specific substances but crucial issues for consumers and industry, such as those groups of substances that are debated and of high public concern. Salvatore D’Acunto lists the most “hot” substances of the moment:
- CMRs, for which the Commission has succeeded in obtaining an automatic examination each year of newly classified substances as such, in order to ensure that they are systematically banned in all cosmetic products, unless there is a duly justified exemption,
- nanomaterials, which must be formally considered safe for consumers by the SCCS (and within a short period of six months) before they can be used,
- endocrine disruptors, for which, after much reflection, things have started to move forward, with a report presented in November 2018 and the development of a first list of substances with potential endocrine disrupting effects, so that they can be evaluated as a priority by the SCCS,
- microplastics for which ECHA has proposed restrictions…
Other substances very frequently incriminated: preservatives. “When I arrived at DG Grow, the subject raised a lot of concern for the industry because the number of authorised preservatives was decreasing almost inexorably. However, preservatives are necessary to avoid degradation of the product. And a wide range of available substances also protects consumers, so that they are not exposed to a very limited number of substances, which represents higher risks for them, particularly in terms of allergies. But since then, the dialogue between the Scientific Committee and industry has improved considerably. And it is beginning to have concrete results, since we are seeing the arrival of new preservatives. We are now beginning to broaden the range and not just limit it.”
The ban on animal testing is also a subject that regularly arises at political level and on which Parliament has recently been extremely active, calling on the Commission to promote a ban beyond Europe, even through an international convention at the United Nations.
“We are promoting, in international contacts and forums, the idea of also introducing in third countries the ban on animal testing or working on the search for valid alternatives. We think it is a subject that deserves to be exported,” says Salvatore D’Acunto.
The European system, an exemplary model
Beyond the issue of animal experiments, Salvatore D’Acunto’s unit of DG Grow is also working to widely disseminate all the concepts underlying the Cosmetics Regulation throughout the world.
“We export a lot of our model, and we are quite proud of it. We have a regulatory system for cosmetics that has become a benchmark and more and more States are following this model. It is a system that is not based on prior authorisation for all products, but on the management of upstream substances and market controls. At the same time, it combines security and flexibility, to avoid excessive bureaucracy, while ensuring the protection of consumer health. Sometimes it is even difficult to follow all the requests coming from outside, from third countries asking for contacts to find out what is happening in Europe!”
And industry, like consumer representatives, recognize that this is indeed a good model. “This shows that this Regulation protects both parties in a balanced way, and not one at the expense of the other. Obviously, it is a model that must always be revitalized and adapted to keep pace with scientific and technological progress. It’s not something static, but I think it’s a very solid foundation.”
And, more broadly, Salvatore D’Acunto invites us to put current affairs debates, whether they concern cosmetic products or European policy in a more global context, in their proper context: “We need to have a somewhat historical vision of our European integration, even when we are discussing a subject that can be very sensitive and controversial. There is no system in the world that is clearer and more protective for consumers than ours. And as far as cosmetics are concerned, we have reached an increasingly refined and precise regulation. It is true that this system may seem complex because there are so many of us, we want to take everyone’s opinions into account and we are always looking for the best possible compromise for all parties. But having a vision that goes beyond current events and that is also contextual and historical is important. Because it helps us to be consumers and Europeans even more aware of how lucky we are to be in this system. Of course, it can always be improved, but you have to have a constructive and not destructive approach, it would really be a historical crime.”
A crime that would certainly be far from having… a cosmetic effect.