Bottled Water Besieged

GAO, group urge stricter source labeling; association says current labeling lawful

Published in CSP Daily News

WASHINGTON -- The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, recommended in reports released Wednesday that bottled water be labeled with the same level of information municipal water providers must disclose, reported the Associated Press.

Bottled wateran industry worth about $16 billion in sales last yearhas been suffering lately as colleges, communities and some governments take measures to limit or ban its consumption. As employers, they are motivated by cost savings and environmental concern [image-nocss] because the bottles often are not recycled.

Bottled water sales were growing by double-digit percentages for years and were helping buoy the U.S. beverage industry overall. But they were flat last year, according to AP, citing Beverage Digest. Editor John Sicher told the news agency that some consumers are turning on the tap during the recession simply because it is cheaper.

From 1997 to 2007, the amount of bottled water consumed per person in the United States more than doubled, from 13.4 gallons to 29.3 gallons, the GAO report said.

As a food product, bottled water is regulated by the federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and required to show nutrition information and ingredients on its labels. Municipal water is under the control of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The two agencies have similar standards for water quality, but the FDA has less authority to enforce them, the GAO said, and the environmental agency requires much more testing.

Representative Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the U.S. House Energy & Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, requested information Wednesday from a dozen bottled water companies on their water sources, treatment methods and two years' results of contaminant testing. ( Click here for more details.)

In a survey of state officials, the GAO found consumers are misinformed about bottled water. "Many replied that consumers often believe that bottled water is safer or healthier than tap water," according to the GAO report. ( Click here to view the full report.)

The Environmental Working Group said in its report that consumers do not get enough information to determine which water is best for them. ( Click here to view the full report.)

Both groups said some bottled water brands include the same information required of tap water providers on either labels or company websites.

The GAO called for more research, but said the FDA should start by requiring that bottled water labels tell consumers where to find out more. Community water systems must distribute annual reports about their water's source, contaminants and possible health concerns.

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) said the "EWG did not make any claim of violations of FDA labeling requirements."

According to Joe Doss, the IBWA's president and CEO, who testified at the hearing, "Consumers can continue to have a high confidence in bottled water's safety and quality. There is nothing in this brief report that points to any improper labeling by water bottlers. The EWG report criticizes the FDA for allowing the term 'purified' water, considering it 'ambiguous,' but the term is an official classification that meets the strict U.S. Pharmacopeia (23rd revision) standard."

He added, "The report amounts to a special interest group's wish list of what they want to impose on bottled water but not what the law reflects."

The group said in a statement, "IBWA supports a consumer's right to clear, accurate, and comprehensive information about the bottled water products he or she purchase. All packaged foods and beverages, including bottled water, are subject to extensive FDA labeling requirements that provide consumers with a great deal of product quality information. In addition, virtually all bottled water products include a phone number on the label that consumers can use to contact the company."

"In fact, IBWA has petitioned FDA to require all bottled water labels to include a phone number. IBWA believes that the most feasible way for consumers to obtain information not already on the label is through a request to the bottler. In addition, consumers can go to the IBWA website to obtain contact information or water quality information for all IBWA member brands."

"Federal law requires FDA bottled water regulations to be as protective of the public health as EPA standards for public drinking water systems. And to that end, FDA has established bottled water standards of quality for more than 90 substances. Most FDA bottled water quality standards are the same as EPA's maximum contaminant levels for public water systems. The few differences in regulated substances are because they are not found in bottled water or they are regulated under another provision of law (such as FDA's food additives program)."

"If a container of bottled water has a contaminant that exceeds an FDA standard, that fact must be disclosed on the label. Failure of a bottled water container to meet the standards of quality and to be properly labeled can subject it to recall by the company, removal from the market by FDA, and criminal penalties, including fines. If a bottled water product's source is a public water system and the finished bottled water product does not meet the FDA Standard of Identity for 'purified' or 'sterile' water, the product label must disclose the public water system source."

"Consumers have many options when choosing which bottled water brand to drink. If a bottled water company does not provide the information that a consumer requests, he or she can choose another brand. That is not the case with tap water. Consumers cannot choose which public water system is piped into their homes. And that is the fundamental issue: consumer choice."