Water wars: Industry association defends bottled water

John Kalkowski

March 11, 2015

22 Min Read
Water wars: Industry association defends bottled water
Water bottle

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) has issued a lengthy defense  in response to a recent report issued by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), questioning the safety of bottled water sold in the U.S.

The IBWA defense says: "On Jan.  2011, the Environmental Working Group ) issued a report

criticizing the information on bottled water product labels (including a
scorecard grading several bottled water brands). The EWG report contains many
false and misleading statements and is based on subjective criteria that are
arbitrary and irrelevant to any legal requirements. Provided below is a summary
of the most erroneous claims made by EWG and IBWA's statement of the facts."


1. The Safety and Regulation of Bottled Water - The EWG report makes several
false and misleading statements about the safety of bottled water. Moreover, EWG
claims that bottled water is less regulated than tap water.


IBWA Response: Bottled water is a safe, healthy, and convenient packaged food
product, which is comprehensively regulated at both the federal and state level.
At the federal level, bottled water must comply with the Federal Food, Drug, and
Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) (21 U.S.C. §§ 301 et seq.) and several parts of Title 21
of the Code of Federal Regulations. Section 410 of FFDCA requires that the Food
and Drug Administration's (FDA) bottled water regulations be as stringent and as
protective of the public health as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's
(EPA) tap water standards.


Bottled water products - whether from groundwater or public water sources - are
produced utilizing a multi-barrier approach. From source to finished product, a
multi-barrier approach helps prevent possible harmful contamination to the
finished product as well as storage, production, and transportation equipment.
Measures in a multi-barrier approach may include one or more of the following:
source protection, source monitoring, reverse osmosis, distillation,
micro-filtration, carbon filtration, ozonation, ultraviolet (UV) light or other
safe and effective methods. Many of the steps in a multi-barrier system are
effective in safeguarding bottled water from microbiological and other


FDA has issued comprehensive bottled water Standards of Identity, which provide
uniform requirements and definitions for the following bottled water
classifications: bottled, drinking, artesian, groundwater, distilled, deionized,
reverse osmosis, mineral, purified, sparkling, spring, sterile, and well water.
(21 C.F.R. § 165.110 (a)) FDA has also established bottled water Standards of
Quality for more than 90 substances. (21 C.F.R. § 165.110 (b)) Most FDA bottled
water quality standards are the same as EPA's maximum contaminant levels (MCL)
for tap water systems. The few differences are usually the result of the
substance not being found in bottled water or the substance is regulated under
another provision of law such as FDA's food additives program. At a July 8, 2009
hearing before the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on
Oversight and Investigations, an FDA official testified that "the agency is
aware of no major outbreaks of illness or serious safety concerns associated
with bottled water in the past decade." At that same hearing, the Government
Accountability Office (GAO) made public its report on bottled water, which found
that based on a survey of water quality and health protection officials in all
50 states and the District of Columbia there was no evidence that bottled water
caused any illnesses during the previous five years. (See United States
Government Accountability Office Report on Bottled Water, GAO-09-610, June
2009.) In contrast, EPA scientists and researchers have estimated that tap water
consumption is the cause of over 16 million cases of acute gastrointestinal
illness (vomiting/diarrhea) in the United States each year (Messner M., et al.,
Journal of Water and Health, 2006; 4(Suppl 2):201-40).


EWG's report suggests that this is a tap water versus bottled water issue.
However, most people who drink bottled water also drink tap water, depending on
the circumstances. Consumers choose bottled water for several reasons, including
taste, quality, and convenience. Bottled water is also an alternative to other
packaged beverages when consumers want to eliminate or moderate calories,
caffeine, sugar, artificial flavors or colors, alcohol and other ingredients
from their diets. At a time when obesity, diabetes and heart disease are so
prevalent, the consumption of water, whether from the bottle or the tap, is a
good thing, and any actions (such as the EWG report) that discourage people from
drinking bottled water are not in the public's interest.


2. Bottled Water Information Provided to Consumers - EWG claims that bottled
water companies "keep secret" certain information about their products. In
particular, EWG believes that bottled water companies should provide consumers
with information on the source of the water, the treatment of the water, and the
quality of the water.

IBWA Response: Bottled water companies are not hiding information or keeping it
secret. In fact, IBWA supports a consumer's right to clear, accurate and
comprehensive information about the bottled water products they purchase.

All packaged foods and beverage products, including bottled water, have
extensive labeling requirements, including a statement of the type of water that
is in the container, compliance with the applicable definitions in the FDA
Standards of Identity, ingredient labeling, name and place of business of the
manufacturer, packer or distributor, net weight, and, if required, nutrition
labeling. In addition, almost all bottled water products also have a phone
number and/or website address on the label. This contact information allows
consumers to get any additional information that they may want that might not
already be on the label. This might include the source, treatment, and quality


Disclosures, such as those required by EPA in Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs)
for public water systems, are not required of any food or beverage product.
These products must meet all applicable safety standards and must be
manufactured according to FDA regulations. However, bottled water companies
voluntarily provide consumers with access to information about their products.
Consumers have multiple choices in brands of bottled water. That is not the case
with their public water system. Consumers cannot make a choice of which
municipal water is piped into their homes. If a bottled water company does not
satisfy a consumer's request for more information, that consumer can, and
should, choose another brand.


The 2000 FDA Feasibility Study Report (65 Fed. Reg. § 51836 (2000)) looked at
various ways that bottled water information could be communicated to consumers,
including company contact information on the label, placing specific contaminant
and other information on the label, distributing pamphlets at the point of
purchase and providing information via the internet. IBWA agrees with the FDA's
conclusion that placing all of the information contained in the CCRs provided by
public water systems on bottled water labels is not feasible. FDA concluded


"We agree with comments that stated it is not feasible to provide all of the
information that is analogous to that contained in a CCR on a bottled water
label. Such information would be excessive in limited label space, particularly
on the small, single serving bottles. In addition, information that requires
frequent changes due to changing test results may result in a misbranded
product. Costs of frequent label changes that are necessary to ensure accurate
information on the contents of a bottled water product, due to frequently
changing information, may present an economic hardship to companies. Moreover,
even annual updates that represent the contaminant history would need
information to put the history for all such CCR-type information in context for
the consumer and would be excessive in limited label space."

3. California Source Labeling - EWG claims that California law requires all
bottled water labels to state the source of the water. In fact, this was one of
the key criteria used by EWG when grading the bottled water products in its


IBWA Response: EWG has misread the California law on this subject. The relevant
statute (Health and Safety Code Section 111170 (f) (2)) states that the bottled
water label or package insert must state the "source of the bottled water, in
compliance with applicable state and federal regulations." (Emphasis added.)
There is, however, no California regulation that requires source labeling for
bottled water. Moreover, the only federal regulation on source labeling requires
a bottled water product from a municipal water source to disclose that fact on
the label if it does not meet the FDA Standard of Identity for "purified" or
"sterile" water. (See 21 C.F.R. § 165.110 (3) (ii)) Therefore, the only source
labeling requirement for bottled water sold in California is the one promulgated
by FDA. Therefore, EWG unfairly assigned lower grades to many bottled water
brands based on the false premise that these products didn't meet the California
source labeling law.


4. Bottled Water Municipal Sources - EWG makes several incorrect or inconsistent
statements about the source of bottled water products.

IBWA Response: The EWG report provides two different figures concerning the
amount of bottled water that comes from municipal sources. On page 6 of the
report EWG states that "most" bottled water companies (i.e., more than half)
"draw their product from municipal tap water." Then, on page 19, EWG says that
"close to half of all bottled water is sourced from municipal tap water." In
both cases EWG cites the same reports as the source for these statements. EWG's
inconsistent statements within the same report and its inability to correctly
provide such a basic and easily obtainable fact calls into question the accuracy
of the other information contained in its report. According to 2009 figures from
the Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC), 52.2% of retail PET bottled water is
from spring sources and 47.8% is from municipal sources.


EWG implies that people may be unaware that they are consuming bottled water
that is from a municipal water source and has been placed in a bottle without
being purified. As mentioned in paragraph three above, this is not the case. 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


It is important to note that purified bottled water is not just tap water in a
bottle. Once the municipal source water enters the bottled water plant several
processes are employed to ensure that it meets the purified or sterile standard
of the U.S. Pharmacopeia 23rd Revision. These treatments can include reverse
osmosis, distillation, or de-ionization. The finished water product is then
placed in a bottle under sanitary conditions and sold to the consumer.


5. Federal Authority to Regulate Bottled Water - EWG claims that FDA has "no
authority over the substantial amount of water bottled and consumed within a
single state."


IBWA Response: FDA's jurisdiction over bottled water products (and any other
product regulated by FDA) extends not only to those products that move in
interstate commerce, but to those products sold within a single state that are
enclosed in packaging materials that have moved in interstate commerce. Known as
the component theory of FDA jurisdiction, courts have long held that if any
component of a food product moves in interstate commerce, FDA has jurisdiction
over the finished product, regardless of whether the finished product itself
moves in interstate commerce. (e.g., United States v. An Article of Food, 752
F.2d 11 (1st Cir. 1985) In the case of bottled water, if the plastic used in the
bottles, the plastic used in the caps, the paper and ink used on the labels, any
outer packaging materials, and even the water itself comes from out of state,
then FDA has jurisdiction over that product. And in today's commercial society,
that will almost always be the case. Congress has recognized this fact by
enacting a law that expressly presumes that all food and beverage products are
sold in interstate commerce. (21 U.S.C. § 379 (a))


6. Federal Regulation of Spring Water - On page 27, EWG lists 30 bottled water
products and claims that they do not provide purification information on their


IBWA Response: All 30 of the products on this list are spring waters or artesian
waters. What EWG fails to recognize and explain is that under FDA regulations a
company that produces a natural spring water, artesian water, or mineral water
cannot treat or process (including purification) the water and still label it as
any of these product types. (21 C.F.R. § 165.110 (a)) Purifying any of these
types of water would cause them to be misbranded and subject to regulatory
action. It is unreasonable and unfair for EWG to criticize and provide a lower
score to a product when it cannot meet EWG's subjective and irrelevant criteria
without being in violation of federal law.


7. 2008 EWG Report on Bottled Water - Citing its own 2008 report, EWG claims
that it found 38 contaminants in 10 bottled water brands.


IBWA Response: The 2008 EWG report contains false claims and exaggerations about
bottled water products. It provides results from a market basket testing program
that EWG conducted on ten brands of bottled water in nine states and the
District of Columbia. This is certainly not a representative sample of bottled
water products, which the report acknowledges. Moreover, the EWG report is based
on the faulty premise that if any substance is present in a bottled water
product, even if it does not exceed the established regulatory limit or no
standard has been set, then it poses a health concern. And EWG repeatedly fails
to draw any correlation between levels of substances found in the bottled water
brands tested and the actual levels at which health effects would be evident.
(See October 14, 2008 IBWA Press Release.)


8. Safety of Plastic Bottled Water Containers - EWG claims that plastic bottled
water bottles contain chemical substances that leach into the water.


IBWA Response: Bottled water containers, as with all food packaging materials,
must be made from FDA-approved food contact substances. Thus, the plastic and
glass containers that are used for bottled water products (which are made from
the same materials used in other food product containers) have undergone FDA
scrutiny prior to being available for use in the market place. FDA has
determined that the containers used by the bottled water industry are safe for
use with food and beverage products, including bottled water, and that they do
not pose a health risk to consumers.


9. Bisphenol A - EWG claims that bisphenol A is a harmful substance.

IBWA Response: Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical building block used primarily to
make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastic has been the
material of choice for food and beverage product containers for nearly 50 years
because it is lightweight, highly shatter-resistant, and transparent. It is
widely used in various food containers and many other everyday items, such as
eyeglasses and compact discs. Many bottled water companies use polycarbonate
plastic for their 3 and 5 gallon water cooler bottles. It is not, however, used
in any retail-sized PET bottled water containers.


Many international studies have been conducted to assess the potential for trace
levels of BPA to migrate from lined cans or polycarbonate bottles into foods or
beverages. The conclusions from those studies and comprehensive safety
evaluations by government bodies worldwide are that polycarbonate bottles are
safe for consumer use. Regulatory agencies in several countries have also ruled
favorably on the safety of BPA, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
(FDA), European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Swiss Federal Office of Public
Health, French Food Safety Authority, Health Canada (the FDA equivalent in
Canada,) Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Japanese National
Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (NIAIST).

The consensus among these regulatory agencies is that the current levels of
exposure to BPA through food packaging do not pose an immediate health risk to
the general population, including infants and children. As noted by Health
Canada, an adult would have to drink approximately 1,000 liters (or 264 gallons)
of water from polycarbonate water cooler bottles every day to approach the
science-based safe intake limit for BPA recently established in Canada.

When issuing its January 2010 statement on this subject, FDA did not take any
formal action to prohibit the use of BPA in any food products. In fact, FDA
cautioned against making any changes in food packaging or consumption by either
industry or consumers that could jeopardize food safety or reduce intake of food
needed for good nutrition.


FDA supports further studies, by both governmental and non-governmental
entities, to provide additional information and address claimed uncertainties
about the safety of BPA. FDA's National Center for Toxicological Research is
pursuing a set of studies on the safety of low doses of BPA, and studies are
being pursued in collaboration with the National Toxicology Program and with
support and input from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is also providing $30
million in funding to study BPA, which includes support both for FDA studies and
external grants. IBWA is very supportive of FDA's extensive ongoing research
regarding the safety of BPA, and strongly believes that this work will continue
to confirm the safety of this substance.


10. The Environmental Impact of Bottled Water - EWG makes several false claims
about the environmental impact of bottled water.


IBWA Response: Contrary to EWG's claims, the bottled water industry is a good
steward of the environment.


Bottled water companies have for many years been taking actions to reduce their
environmental footprint. For example, the bottled water industry is using much
lighter weight plastics for its containers. Over the past eight years the gram
weight of the 16.9 ounce "single serve"- PET bottled water container has
dropped by 32.6%. (BMC Report, February 2010) The average PET bottled water
container weighed 18.9 grams in 2000 and by 2008 the average amount of PET resin
in each bottle has declined to 12.7 grams. BMC estimated that during this time
span, more than 1.3 billion grams of PET resin have been saved by the bottled
water industry through container light-weighting.

The bottled water industry is also developing new technologies in product
packaging, such as the use of recycled content, biodegradable and compostable
materials, and is utilizing more fuel efficient means of transportation.

All bottled water containers are one-hundred percent recyclable. In 2009, the
recycling rate for PET bottled water containers reached 31%. (National
Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) Report, December 2010) This
figure has doubled in the past five years. While this is encouraging news, it is
also a reminder that more needs to be done to expand recycling efforts and
collection methods across the country. As a result, in June 2010, IBWA approved
an innovative framework for a Material Recovery Program that can serve as the
blueprint for local communities to increase recycling through the support and
participation of all stakeholders. This program will assist in developing new,
comprehensive solutions to help manage solid waste in communities throughout in
the United States by having all consumer product companies working together with
state and local governments to improve recycling and waste collection efforts.

IBWA's Material Recovery Program framework supports state-authorized
public/private corporations that: 1) establish in each community specific
recycling goals to increase recycling access and rates; 2) generate revenue for
grants from annual consumer product company producer responsibility fees and
local/state government contributions; 3) fund local government recycling
infrastructure improvements and consumer education programs; and 4) dissolve
when local recycling goals have been met.


While the bottled water industry supports effective environmental conservation
policies, we strongly believe that any efforts to reduce the environmental
impact of packaging must focus on all consumer goods and not target any one
industry. Bottled water is just one of thousands of food and beverage products
packaged in plastic containers. According to EPA, bottled water containers make
up just one-third of one percent of the entire waste stream. Therefore, any
proposed solutions must cover all consumer products or they will be ineffective
in dealing with the comprehensive environmental issue.


The EWG report states that more than 30 million barrels of oil are used each
year to produce and transport bottled water products. That statement
demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how plastic containers are made.
Most commercial plastic materials in the United States are derived from oil
by-products leftover from gasoline production. The sticky solids that remain
from oil refining are literally recycled into pellets that are melted and formed
into plastic materials. It is misleading to state or imply that virgin barrels
of oil are dedicated to making plastic bottles.


The bottled water industry uses minimal amounts of ground water to produce an
important consumer product-and does so with great efficiency. According to a
2005 study by the Drinking Water Research Foundation (DWRF), annual bottled
water production accounts for less than 2/100 of one percent (0.02%) of the
total groundwater withdrawn in the United States each year. Additionally, based
on information gathered in the DWRF study, in 2001, 87% of the water withdrawn
by bottled water companies, on average, was actually bottled for consumption by
humans, so the bottling process is a very efficient one.


Because a long-term sustainable supply of high-quality water is literally the
foundation and "lifeblood" of bottled water companies, IBWA member bottlers
recognize the critical importance of environmental conservation and stewardship
of all water resources. Bottled water companies perform hydro-geological
assessments, monitor the quality and quantity at source wells, purchase
surrounding land for protection and recharge of their source and participate in
local and regional water stewardship partnerships on aquifer protection.

Groundwater is a renewable natural resource that is replenished through the
hydrologic cycle. The duration of the replenishment cycle is influenced by
weather patterns, recharge areas and characteristics, geologic settings and
other site-specific factors. When developing and using water resources, it is
essential that use is balanced with the replenishment cycle and the requirements
of the regional demand for the resource. IBWA supports groundwater management
policies, laws and regulations that are comprehensive, science-based, multi-
jurisdictional, treat all users equitably, and balance the rights of current
users against the future needs to provide a sustainable resource.


11. The Price of Bottled Water - EWG claims that bottled water is up to 1,900
times more expensive than tap water. EWG assumed a flat price of $1.00 per
liter, or $3.79 per gallon, which is what they claim most consumers would pay at
a convenience store.


IBWA Response: According to BMC, the average price per gallon of domestic non-
sparkling bottled water was $1.26 in 2009. As a popular retail food product,
bottled water is available at many differing price points. By using the price
that consumers would pay at a convenience store, EWG is purposely inflating the
cost. Actual consumers most often purchase bottled water in cost-saving volume.
BMC notes that mass merchandisers/club stores, where the price per gallon is
generally much lower, accounted for 36.4% of the volume of retail premium PET
water in 2009, and grocery stores accounted for 28.9% of retail PET volume in
the same year. The small independents/others category accounted for 26.5% of
volume, while convenience stores, where the bottled water price per gallon is
likely to be much higher, sold only 5.3% of total retail PET water in 2009. The
rest of the volume - 2.9% - was sold through drug stores.


12. Bottled Water Advertising and Marketing - EWG claims that bottled water
sales are "fueled by expensive marketing and misinformation.


IBWA Response: The success of the bottled water industry has been consumer
driven and cannot be attributed to costly advertising and marketing campaigns.
People realize that bottled water is a safe, healthy, and convenient product,
and that is what motivates their purchases. In fact, bottled water companies
spend relatively little on advertising and marketing. According to BMC and
Kantar Media Intelligence, advertising expenditures for the bottled water
industry totaled only $28 million in 2009 - one of the lowest spending levels in
the beverage industry. In comparison, 2009 advertising expenditures for beer
totaled $1 billion, carbonated soft drinks $477 million, fruit beverages $361
million, milk $152 million, energy drinks $132 million, and coffee $110 million.

Furthermore, bottled water companies are not hiding any information or
misinforming consumers as claimed by EWG. The vast majority of bottled water
companies fully comply with all state and federal labeling laws. Moreover, under
state and federal law, the advertisements and marketing activities of all
consumer products, including bottled water, must be truthful and non-misleading.
Any product that does not comply with these requirements is subject to state and
federal enforcement action.


13. Study Methodology - Pages 36 and 37 of the EWG report outlines the
methodology used to acquire and analyze the labels and websites of 173 bottled
water products. This section of the report also sets forth EWG's scoring and
rating system.


IBWA Response: EWG's methodology is flawed and the results of this "study" are
not representative of the bottled water industry. The information reviewed by
EWG was obtained by inviting the public, "via common social media outlets," to
provide EWG with bottled water labels. This is hardly an accepted method of
gathering information for a reliable and representative study. For example,
since the labels were separated from the bottles before being sent to EWG, some
information (e.g., production date codes that may have been printed on the
bottle) may not have been taken into account.


EWG received and reviewed 274 unique labels for 173 different bottled water
products that were purchased in 29 states. However, approximately 111 (41%) of
the labels and 96 (55%) of the products were from California. With such a large
percentage of the labels and products coming from just one state, the report
cannot be considered representative of the entire United States bottled water


Many of the bottled water products reviewed by EWG are private label brands.
They are produced by a bottled water company for a brand owner (e.g., a retail
store) who then sells or distributes them under their own brand name. When
seeking bottled water quality information for some of these private label
products EWG only went to the brand owner's main website rather than call the
toll-free telephone number listed on the label. As a result, EWG gave lower
ratings to companies that would have provided water quality information for each
of their private label brands if EWG had just called the toll-free telephone


In at least one instance, when EWG didn't find a website address on a bottled
water label they must have searched the Internet and found what they thought was
the website of the company that made the product. However, the website EWG lists
as a source of information is for an entirely different bottled water product
that is made and sold outside the United States by an entirely different
company. The EWG report card listing for this product also states that the
private label bottled water was purchased in a state in which the retailer does
not have any stores.


EWG's failure to call toll-free numbers provided on product labels to obtain
bottled water quality information, and reporting incorrect information obtained
from sources not connected to the brand being graded calls into question the
accuracy of the entire EWG scorecard. How many other products were criticized
and given poor grades by EWG as a result of incorrect information being used?

EWG makes a subjective assessment of the quality of bottled water by suggesting
that certain treatments are necessary for the safety of the product and in order
to satisfy certain arbitrary scoring criteria in their report. For example, if a
bottled water process does not employ "advanced treatment," but rather is
processed using "basic treatment," which is not defined, then the product score
is reduced by 0.5 point. If a product requires no treatment, based on the high
quality of the source water, that product's score is reduced by a full point.
The scoring system clearly illustrates EWG's misunderstanding of bottled water
definitions, processing and quality by suggesting that only waters treated by
reverse osmosis or distillation are safe to drink. Under this scoring practice,
no spring water or artesian water, for example, would ever qualify for a full
score, even if all consumer information is available.


As was discussed in paragraph number three above, California law does not
require bottled water products to disclose the source on the label. However,
when grading the products, EWG gave a lower score to any bottled water that did
not comply with the non-existent source labeling requirement.


The letter grade key is not substantiated by any information or objective
criteria. Moreover, EWG does not assign a numerical score to filtered tap water,
but awards it an "A" grade without any information on the quality of the
filtered water after filtration. If the EWG scoring system is applied to
filtered tap water, it too would fall short of the minimum score of 8.6 for an


(c) 2011 Targeted News Service

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