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Europe's Secret Scent

The European Union wants to bring clarity into one of the most secretive industries around: perfume. Manufacturers feel Brussels is sticking its nose where it shouldn't.


Consumers may soon know what's in a perfume without having to rely on their olfactory senses.

For generations, France's perfumers have created new scents by measuring raw essences, blending them, taking a whiff, and readjusting the ingredients until finally, all the substances merged into the perfect scent.

What magical contents precisely go into the small bottle is the largest trade secret of any perfume creator - just as heavily guarded as the detailed make-up of Coca Cola.

The European Union, however, wants to shed some light on this secret. And the perfume industry is up in arms.

According to a new EU directive, consumers should not only be able to smell what scents are in perfumes and cosmetics, they should have definite knowledge of the contents before they purchase a product. The move is aimed to prevent the spread of allergies through the expensive fragrances, the EU says.

The directive wants the percentage of lavender essence or rose oil, for example, to be printed on the bottle's label. Another option would be a package leaflet like those included with medication.

"Suicidal" for the perfume industry

Prodarom, the National Association of Fragrance Manufacturers, is not happy with the move. Such interference by Brussels "endangers the perfume industry, favors imitations and slows down the development of new scents," Prodarom president Han-Paul Bodifée told the AFP wire service.

He says that implementing the EU directive was also "utterly unrealistic," considering that 100 to 150 essences are necessary for one single perfume.

Bodifée adds that the rules would also be "suicidal" for the industry, as they made it easier for perfume to be successfully forged. Already today, product pirates are the toughest opponents of the traditional guild, he notes.

Rose - Muttertag

The "Chavez rose"

The EU experts have their eyes - or noses - fixed mainly on 26 aromatic substances that are known to promote allergies, including 16 natural scents, mainly from plants like lavender, rose, orange or lemon. Brussels claims these should at least be mentioned in a warning on the bottles.

"But we will prove that the doses of these natural extracts, which are found in 90 percent of perfumes, are too slight to trigger allergies," says Bodifée.

Looking for a compromise

The large cosmetics and luxury goods companies, whose scents are manufactured in the southern French perfume metropolis of Grasse, have anyway already called for reducing allergen scents or doing without them completely, Bodifée notes.

Most of the 58 perfume companies in Grasse are owned by U.S. corporations, such as Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson. And they are taking the issue very seriously, last but not least because they fear astronomical compensation claims in their domestic markets.

But independent producers have also been researching for years on how to chemically treat scents in order to disarm the actual allergens.

The EU is expected to take up this debate again at the beginning of October. Until then, French manufacturers want to go through numerous natural essences with a fine-tooth comb and then present their objections in Brussels.

The industry is hoping for a joint resolution, says Bodifée, and in the end, a compromise which will preserve their most precious secret.

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