The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has endorsed the World Health Organization's (WHO) definition of endocrine disruptors, paving the way for the European Commission to regulate those chemicals in food. The pesticide industry reacted angrily, saying the scientific process has been "rushed to meet political deadlines".

In its opinion, published on Wednesday (20 March), the EFSA's Scientific Committee underlined that not all endocrine active substances have a adverse effect on the hormone system and that a distinction needs to be made between those that do and those that don't.

The committee defined endocrine-active substances as essentially harmless. These are defined as "any chemical that can interact directly or indirectly with the endocrine system, and subsequently result in an effect on the endocrine system, target organs and tissues."

By contrast, endocrine disruptors are defined as "an exogenous substance or mixture that alters function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub)populations."

EFSA's opinion came after the European Commission requested the Parma-based agency in 2012 to define scientific criteria for endocrine disruptors in view of possibly regulating them in the future.

"The authority has reviewed the currently available testing methods to assist risk managers in defining what may or may not be an endocrine disruptor using science-based criteria. Our opinion also underlines the need for further testing strategies to be developed to test these substances in a systematic and transparent way,” said EFSA’s director of Science Strategy and Coordination, Hubert Deluyker.

Opinion faces criticism

The pesticides industry reacted angrily, saying the EFSA science review process had been "rushed to meet political deadlines" and "ignored established scientific principles".

"ECPA appreciates EFSA’s scientific input but sees its contribution as unfortunately late when the ED criteria are all but finalised," said Friedhelm Schmider, director-general of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA).

"Endocrine disruption is a complex scientific issue and the Commission’s own scientific committees could have made an invaluable contribution in providing clear expert advice to European regulators and politicians."

According to ECPA, the science review was based on perceived risks rather than actual ones.

"Robust and independent scientific advice is important to ensure European regulation addresses substantiated concerns rather than fear. A broader return to risk assessment over hazard assessment would meaningfully contribute towards this goal," ECPA said in a statement.

The result, ECPA said, is that Europe risked depriving EU farmers from "essential and innovative plant protection products which they safely use today".

'Cocktail effects'

Environmentalists too criticised EFSA but for different reasons.

The Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe) said EFSA had ignored the so-called "cocktail effects", underlining that the combination of many otherwise harmless chemicals in the human body can affect the endocrine system.

PAN Europe contends that EFSA did not calculate the numerous mixtures of pesticides in the food sold in European shops and wrongly assumed that people were exposed to only one single pesticide in their life.

In reality, European consumers will eat dozens of different pesticides on a daily basis, PAN Europe stated. 

"Calculating the risk just based on one pesticide makes no sense and is unscientific. The EFSA claim should therefore be abandoned since it creates a false feeling of safety," PAN Europe said in a statement.

Asked by EurActiv how much EFSA was looking into the issue of chemical cocktail effects, Tony Hardy, chair of the agency's Scientific Committee, said at a press briefing that the question of mixtures was very important.

"It is a topic which EFSA at the moment is doing quite a lot with. We are looking at the ways of assessing mixtures of chemicals and in relation to the pesticide area which is the most pressing because the legislation requires cumulative assessment of pesticides in similar groups. There is work underway which I guess will be published later this year," Hardy stressed.

Testing methods

EFSA's experts also concluded that available or soon to be available internationally agreed testing methods can identify interference of chemical substances in mammals and fish, which are known to be sensitive to endocrine disruption. 

This, it said, can happen via four major endocrine pathways - oestrogen, androgen, thyroid and stereoidogenesis.

In its recommendation to policymakers, the scientific committee concluded that a "risk assessment approach which considers both potential adverse effects of endocrine active substances together with the likelihood of exposure makes the best use of available information to regulate their use."

Deluyker said that EFSA was aware that national, European and international organisations have done science reviews looking at the possible health effects of endocrine active substances.

"EFSA's opinion complements this work," Deluyker stated.

Hardy said that reviewing current test methods was an important part of EFSA's work and contributes to EU and international discussions in the area.

"However, no single test is sufficient to decide whether a substance is an endocrine disruptor and several tests need to be done and then assessed together by experts in a weight-of-evidence approach," Hardy added.