Manufacturers, Suppliers and Resellers Must Plan for California’s New Cruelty Free Cosmetics Act

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Almost no one favors animal testing for cosmetics.  The beauty market trend has been strongly away from animal testing, as demonstrated by the recent announcement of Coty, Inc.’s CoverGirl brand being certified cruelty free.  That’s why the personal care products industry supported California’s new Cruelty Free Cosmetics Act, SB 1249, which was unanimously passed by the California State Assembly and signed into law by Governor Brown on September 28, 2018.  The new Act does not take effect until January 1, 2020, but compliance will require cosmetics businesses to plan ahead.  The new Act may present some thorny and perhaps unexpected issues and risks for importers, manufacturers, distributors and resellers of beauty products and ingredients in California.

The new Act is found at Section 1834.9.5 of the California Civil Code, immediately following the existing animal testing law that has been in effect since 2000.   That existing law, Section 1834.9, continues to prohibit manufacturers and testing facilities from using animal testing when alternative methods have been scientifically validated and recommended by responsible agencies.  But the existing law has limited application, and the new Act significantly expands on the prohibitions of animal testing for cosmetics and their ingredients.

Generally, the Act prohibits a manufacturer from importing, offering or selling in California any cosmetic that “was developed or manufactured using an animal test that was conducted or contracted by the manufacturer, or any supplier of the manufacturer, on or after January 1, 2020,” with specified exceptions.  The first observation must be that the new Act will not apply to any manufacturer’s cosmetic or ingredient that was previously subject to animal tests.  The natural effect is that the Act generally does not apply to a manufacturer’s existing cosmetic ingredients and product formulations, even if the cosmetic or ingredient is manufactured after January 1, 2020.

However, manufacturers and importers need to note that the Act certainly can affect development of new cosmetic formulations, and so it will have a strong impact on use of innovative cosmetic ingredients in new or reformulated products.  This can impede participants in the personal care products industry who strive to develop new ingredients to improve and differentiate their products.  Scientifically-reliable alternative non-animal test methods can be slow to develop and receive approval by regulatory agencies, so the inability to conduct animal testing could inhibit the introduction of new cosmetic ingredients, particularly potentially complex ingredients such as new surfactants or polymers.

There are some exceptions to application of the new Act, but they may defy easy workaround solutions.  The first major exception is a multi-step assessment that exempts application of the Act if the manufacturer can establish all of these elements:

  1. An animal test is required by a U.S. federal or state regulatory authority, and no non-animal alternative testing method is acceptable;
  2. The ingredient tested is in wide use and cannot be replaced by another ingredient with similar function; and
  3. The need to conduct animal tests is justified to address a specific substantiated human health problem and supported with a detailed research protocol.

The multiple elements required for this exception are so demanding that its practical utility is doubtful.  But there are two additional exceptions that on first blush appear deceptively simple to apply:  First, if animal testing is required by a foreign regulatory authority for export to that country, the animal-tested product does not for that reason violate the new Act.  This was an important exception favored by the industry, because without it cosmetic products could not be readily exported to foreign markets, like China, that require animal testing.  The second exception applies if animal tests were required to be performed on an ingredient for non-cosmetic purposes.  In other words, if some animal testing was done on the ingredient for non-cosmetic purposes, or was required for exporting the product, that animal testing in itself will not preclude use of that ingredient in a cosmetic product.

On their face, these last two exceptions seem like they create large loopholes in the Act.  But looks can be deceptive.  Both of these exceptions are narrowed by an additional term that prohibits the manufacturer from relying on evidence of the animal testing to substantiate the safety of cosmetics sold in California.  California and the FDA require that “Each ingredient used in a cosmetic product and each finished cosmetic product shall be adequately substantiated for safety prior to marketing.”  (21 CFR 740.10(a))  There are few meaningful guidelines about what “adequate substantiation” of safety means, or exactly what records are required to be maintained to show such substantiation, but it is clear such substantiation must exist “prior to marketing.”

So the effect of the new Act is to prohibit manufacturers offering products in California from relying on animal testing as part of their “adequate substantiation of safety” before selling their products, even though the animal testing itself did not violate the Act due to the noted exceptions.  This limitation effectively requires manufacturers to somehow show separate, non-animal testing to have adequate substantiation of the safety of their ingredients and products prior to marketing.  That in turn renders the animal testing that was permitted under the exceptions useless to support the safety of cosmetic sales in the California market.

The safety substantiation requirement has yet another twist that may present a significant risk to manufacturers selling cosmetics in California after the new Act becomes effective:  Although no federal or California state law specifies how or what documentation of safety must be maintained, the new Act both permits and motivates district attorneys and city attorneys, upon their determination of “a reasonable likelihood of a violation,” to “review the testing data upon which a cosmetic manufacturer has relied in the development or manufacturing” of the product sold in California.  Given that violators can be fined $5,000 initially plus $1,000 per each day that a violation continues, which fines are payable directly to the city or county attorney’s office, district attorneys and city attorneys have powerful motivation to aggressively pursue possible violations.

It seems the legislature was sufficiently concerned about this “adequate substantiation” issue that it was felt necessary to specify in the Act that a manufacturer “is not prohibited from reviewing, assessing or retaining evidence from an animal test conducted” for non-cosmetic purposes (though, oddly, the Act says nothing about that for the separate “foreign regulatory” exception).  So just having an animal test in the manufacturer’s file may not violate the Act, but the manufacturer still cannot rely on those tests when a DA or city attorney comes calling.  Manufacturers must determine how they will maintain records to show adequate substantiation of the safety of all of their ingredients and product formulations, prior to marketing, without running afoul of the Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act.

The new Act does not itself create a new private legal claim, which means that (unlike some other California consumer protection statutes like Proposition 65) bounty-hunter plaintiff lawyers will not have direct motivation to pursue claims under the Act.  However, that has not stopped creative plaintiffs’ attorneys from bootstrapping other consumer product regulatory violations as bases for civil lawsuits, such as “Unfair Business Practices” claims under Business & Professions Code Section 17200 et seq., and even class actions under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), California Civil Code Section 1750.  It is also not difficult to imagine competitors making claims of unfair competition based on allegations that a competing cosmetics brand violated California’s animal testing laws, perhaps including false advertising claims for good measure.

Cosmetics manufacturers and their suppliers have a little over a year to ensure that their cosmetics and ingredients made, imported or sold in California will be compliant with the Cruelty Free Cosmetics Act.  More challenging still, manufacturers, importers and ingredient suppliers will have to plan for development of new cosmetics and ingredients, with adequate substantiation of their safety that does not depend on animal testing results. Conkle Kremer & Engel attorneys stay up to date on important regulatory developments affecting their clients in the manufacturing and resale industries, and are ready to help clients navigate California’s fast-changing regulatory landscape.  If you have questions in this or other consumer product regulatory areas, contact CK&E at [email protected] or 310 998-9100.

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