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Donnybrook over spring brooks

FDA considers whether bottled water labels should carry information on levels of ingredients, contaminants and chemicals.
FILED IN:  Sustainability  > Strategy

Looming labeling requirements are shaking up the bottled water industry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is about to twist open a draft feasibility report that gives the agency's first thoughts on whether bottled water should have to add to its label some or all of the same information on contaminants that community water systems will soon have to disclose to their customers. Bottlers opposing the idea make both technical and marketing points. Kim Jeffery president and chief executive officer of The Perrier Group Greenwich CT which controls 27% of the U.S. bottled water market via 14 brands says that the kind of information required of municipal water systems-called consumer confidence reporting (CCR)-is not applicable to bottled water. "The bottled water industry has doubled in sales in the past ten years" he says. "Why do people buy bottled water? Consumers trust its quality." Existing standards Kevin Mathews director of quality assurance for Perrier says that the FDA has "Standards of Quality" that establish limits in bottled water for some of the same substances EPA regulates in drinking water. In some instances the FDA's standards are more strict. For example the FDA allows no coliform in bottled water; the EPA does in tap water. Perrier is a member of the International Bottled Water Assn. (IBWA). Cindy Yablonski vice president of research science and technology for IBWA says consumers can get detailed information on a product's contents by calling the telephone number that some two-thirds of IBWA members display on their product labels. But environmental and consumer groups want the labels to contain some of the same information that municipal water systems will provide to their customers as a result of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Amendments of 1996. "We approach this issue knowing that millions of Americans rely upon bottled water as an alternative or substitute for tap water often as a result of the advertising campaigns of bottlers touting the purity of their water." This comes from a letter submitted by the Natural Resources Defense Council Consumer Federation of America Friends of the Earth and four other groups as comments to FDA. Feasibility study late The SDWA amendments contained a provision requiring the EPA within 24 months to force community water systems to provide their customers with an annual CCR which contains information on the level of contaminants in their drinking water. That report will have to include data on a range of water quality readings that relate to EPA standards in areas like maximum contaminant levels. Another provision in that bill called for the FDA to publish a draft feasibility study in 18 months (the February 6 1998 deadline was not honored) looking at the need for similar information from the manufacturers of bottled water. A final study would be due within 30 months. The SDWA amendments do not tell the FDA to proceed to a rulemaking on bottled water labeling; they only ask FDA to consider that step. Given the nearly unanimous opposition from the industry the FDA would probably be hard pressed-in a political sense-to move forward even if the agency decides enhanced labeling is necessary. The more likely scenario would be FDA throwing its final report into the lap of Congress and asking the folks on Capitol Hill to give the agency explicit statutory direction on the issue. Bottlers not unanimous The pushing and shoving is not just between environmentalists and bottlers; even the latter group is divided on one issue. The National Spring Water Assn. represents companies that sell bottled water taken from the surface of a spring. Mike Byington president of the NSWA says companies that get their spring water by boring a hole in the vicinity of the spring-which is to say many IBWA members-and then pumping the water up from the acquifer should have to disclose additional information. "First they should not be able to label their product as 'spring water.' It is well water" he says. "This is a truth in labeling issue." Moreover Byington says those companies should also have to disclose how their extraction method can upset the spring's natural equilibrium and cause the characteristics of the water to change to the point of long-term damage to the spring. FDA's Standards of Identity do not require that distinction to be made on labels.

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