At a meeting of experts yesterday (21 December) the European Commission failed to bridge the gap between member states on setting criteria for endocrine disruptors.
The EU Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF) met yesterday to vote on the proposed endocrine disruptors criteria but no agreement was reached.
In June 2016, the European Commission presented a long-awaited science-based set of criteria for identifying substances with endocrine disrupting properties of plant protection products and biocides [See background].
The Commission decided to maintain the ‘hazard-based’ approach of the Pesticides Regulation, meaning that substances are banned on the basis of hazard, without taking into account exposure to the substance.
On the other hand, a risk-based approach, backed by the industry, would also include exposure.
In order to explain the difference simply, the Commission referred to an example from the animal kingdom. A lion is intrinsically a hazard, but a lion safely constrained in a zoo is not a risk since there is no exposure to it.
After the criteria were presented, the executive held consultations with the member states, the European Parliament, and relevant stakeholders. In an effort to find a compromising solution, the Commission decided to revise the texts to address the concerns expressed, particularly as regards the burden of proof and the scope of the criteria.
The original text concerning plant protection products included the criteria and a technical amendment to the already foreseen derogation.
The plant protection products draft act was then split into two texts: one containing the criteria and one containing the amendment to the derogation.
This has been done, the Commission claims, in order to clearly separate the two issues in discussions with the member states and later on with the Parliament and the EU Council. In addition, this would grant the member states the possibility to express their opinion on each one of them separately.
The initial proposal on derogation provided that a chemical identified as an endocrine disruptor would be totally banned unless there is negligible exposure to it but the revised version proposed to keep the chemical on the market if it poses a negligible risk.
The Endocrine Society issued a statement this week regarding the revised exceptions saying that they are “extremely problematic”.
“This exemption would include pesticides that primarily aim at preventing certain insects from growing or reproducing, even though these chemicals also could have effects on non-target species,” the organisation noted.
Moreover, the revised texts addressed the request to cover also co-formulants by the criteria under the biocidal legislation by changing “active substance” to “substance”.
Last but not least, a clarification was added that active substances that act as an insect or plant growth regulator are out of the scope of the criteria. EU sources explained that this applies only to the environmental section and not the human health section and it was raised by some important member states as these active substances, in particular insect growth regulators (IGRs), are important in integrated pest management.
Pelle Moos, project officer on chemicals and trade at the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC) told EURACTIV that yesterday’s outcome was a good sign as it meant that member states still disapprove of the Commission’s “flawed proposal”.
However, according to Moos, governments should refuse further minor tweaks and pressure the Commission to overhaul its proposal.
“Like environment ministers emphasised earlier this week, we need criteria that are fit to protect consumers’ health, not only from harmful pesticides but also from endocrine disruptors used for example in cosmetics and toys,” he stated.
Commission: Need for further discussions
Commenting on the result of the experts’ meeting, European Commission spokesman Enrico Brivio said that the executive took note of the positions of member states on the proposed criteria to identify endocrine disruptors.
“It acknowledged that further discussions are needed and will do all that is possible to advance the proposal that would ensure higher protection of citizens’ health,” he stressed, adding that the Commission remains committed to respecting its obligations and will now reflect on the best way forward for both the Plant Protection Products and Biocides texts.
For Graeme Taylor, Director of Public Affairs of the European Crop Protection, a trade group representing the pesticides industry, the failure to reach an agreement did not come as a surprise.
“Given the level of uncertainty going into the meeting, and the confusion created by the Commission splitting the proposal, it’s not really a surprise that there was no decision,” he stated, adding that this signal from member states should give the Commission some pause for reflection, and for them to look seriously at the impact of the criteria.
He continued, saying that since the very beginning ECPA has pushed the executive to include elements of hazard characterisation, in particular like potency and the principles of risk assessment into the criteria.
“This is the only way to regulate and ensure you can identify substances of concern from those that are not,” he emphasised.
“We fail to understand why a Commission that continues to talk about the importance of innovation, trade, competitiveness, agriculture and Better Regulation would persevere for so long with a proposal that ignores all of these elements, with no increased benefit for health or the environment,” he added.
Asked by EURACTIV why he opposed the revised exceptions’ mechanism suggesting keeping the chemical on the market if it poses a negligible risk, he replied: “As a principle we don’t support regulation by derogation and would prefer that the Commission focus on one proposal with a clear, workable, science-based set of criteria, including potency.”
In a letter to UK Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food George Eustice, several food and farming organisations including the British Crop Production Council (BCPC), also expressed their concerns about the Commission’s proposal.
Dr Colin Ruscoe, president of BCPC, noted that the signatories were particularly concerned that the proposed criteria will lead to the withdrawal from the market of important plant protection products, which “will adversely crop production and so UK competitiveness in agriculture, food, and trade”.
“Until the UK formally exits the EU, we remain subject to EU law and regulations […] we have therefore strongly urged the Minister to continue to promote use of science-based risk assessment as the basis of EU regulation to support modern, productive and sustainable agriculture, and to challenge hard the Commission’s flawed proposals on EDs,” Dr Ruscoe emphasised.
How the countries voted
EURACTIV was informed that Denmark, Spain, France and Sweden voted against both texts on the criteria and the revised exceptions mechanism. Belgium voted against the derogation mechanism while backing the proposed criteria.
French Environment Minister Ségolène Royal said that the Commission’s proposal was “unacceptable”, and officially asked President Jean-Claude Juncker to engage in a new process of global reflection about setting criteria for endocrine disruptors.
In an official letter sent to the president of the European Commission on 21 December, Royal insisted that the new proposal “would appear to be a step backward from the EU’s mission to protect the environment and citizens”.
At a budget debate in the Belgian parliament on Tuesday (20 December), Federal Minister of Agriculture Willy Borsus stated that Brussels would support the first text setting out the criteria “since it incorporates almost all the country’s comments”.
But regarding the second part on the authorisation of exemptions, Belgium stressed that it would oppose it as the proposed mechanism “strips the text of its substance”.
Regarding the criteria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Estonia, Ireland, Croatia, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Finland voted in favour while all the Eastern European countries, Greece, Cyprus, and the UK abstained from the vote.
On derogation, the UK, Slovakia, Romania, Portugal, Austria, Latvia, Italy, Croatia, Ireland, Estonia, Czech Republic, and Bulgaria voted in favour.
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can have harmful effects on the body's endocrine (hormone) system. They interfere with natural hormone systems, and the health effects can be felt long after the exposure has stopped. These chemical substances are present in a large number of everyday products: foods, cleaning products, food containers, etc.
Exposure to endocrine disruptors in the womb can have life-long effects and can even have consequences for the next generation.
The European Commission was supposed to define test criteria for potential endocrine disruptors by December 2013.
In June 2016, the EU executive finally presented a long-awaited science-based set of criteria for identifying substances with endocrine disrupting properties of plant protection products and biocides.
Once adopted, the EU regulatory system will be the first worldwide to define scientific criteria for endocrine disruptors in legislation.
- 2017: Expected decision on the European Commission's proposed criteria on endocrine disruptors