A Look at Bottled Water

A Look at Bottled Water

From the Spring 2014 Minnesota Department of Health Public Water Supply Unit, Waterline, Minnesota Department of Health

Bottled Water for Sale
A stand at the Minnesota State Fair sells water. Nearby, in the Eco Experience Building, is a bottle-filling station dispensing water for free.

Tap water vs. bottled water. The tensions between producers and advocates are often evident.

Karin Holt, manager of public affairs and communications for the Coca-Cola Company in Eagan, Minnesota, doesn’t think it needs to be this way.  “We are by no means competing with tap water,” she says.

No doubt the tension will continue.  Holt said that a “Cap the Tap” campaign by Coca-Cola, characterized by Andy Bellatti of Huffington Post as a “covert assault” on tap water, has been retired.  She called Cap the Tap an “outmoded” program, a campaign aimed at Coca-Cola customers, such as restaurants, to “increase incremental sales of our beverages.”

Rik Schwarz, Coca-Cola’s director of sales for food service/on premise, said, “Our job is to create revenue for our restaurant owners.  There is nothing that talks about not getting them [wait staff] to not talk about tap water.”  Schwarz also notes that free-style units they provide with around 100 beverage choices, including Dasani, Coke’s bottled-water brand, have an option for free tap water.  He said restaurants, college campuses, and other sites for these machines wanted that option.  Schwarz acknowledged that when he started at Coca-Cola 17 years ago, “we were probably against that,” but offering tap water as a choice in their free-style and fountain machines is something they are now happy to do.  “It’s really about an informed choice.”

Midwest Coca-Cola Bottling Company

Holt understands that the Cap the Tap campaign was seen differently by many groups and says that is a “legitimate concern,” but she adds, “We don’t want to reduce the consumption of tap water.  The Cap the Tap campaign was never intended to be a broad-based commercial thing.  It was just a way for servers to say to people who asked for water, ‘Would you like something in addition to water?’  It wasn’t anything more than that.

“Companies are evolving in their viewpoints.  It’s [Cap the Tap] something that isn’t even on our radar anymore.  It’s something that hasn’t been used in years.”

Coca-Cola has more than 650 products and operates in 207 countries.  Holt and others at the Midwest Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Eagan are aware of the issues, such as environmental and health concerns about plastic bottles, the impact on groundwater supplies, and the cost of a bottle of water in contrast to that of water from the tap.

“Water is a huge area of focus for us given that water is a tremendous resource for our company and our products,” says Holt.  “It’s a key ingredient in all of our beverages.  We want to become water neutral by 2020.  To us, that means giving back to nature the same amount of water we use in our production and in our products.”

Holt explains that “giving back to nature” relates to investing in community water stewardship projects, including work with partners on farm-field management nutrient techniques, efforts to reduce runoff, ways to return water to nature, restoration of wetlands, and other water-conservation and replenishment projects.  “We fund the projects, they [the partners] carry out the work.  Coca-Cola receives water credits that offset the water it uses for its products.” 

A recent project was a nutrient management plan in the Boone River watershed in Iowa to help farmers avoid over-application of fertilizer that can be detrimental to downstream water quality and to reduce nutrient loads that contribute to low-oxygen areas in the Gulf of Mexico that no longer support aquatic life.  Partners in the project include Iowa State University, the Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Soybean and Corn Growers Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Coca-Cola is also working to reduce the amount of water it uses in manufacturing facilities, the amount of plastic (which is free of bisphenol-a) in its containers, and waste in the production and transport of its products.  In addition, the company has programs to encourage customers to recycle its bottles.

The Coca-Cola Foundation has been involved in disaster relief, such as donations of cash and in-kind contributions to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan last November.  The foundation also works with organizations around the world to support initiatives that respond to community needs.

“We’ve brought healthy sanitation systems to a lot of countries that don’t have clean sources of water,” says Holt.  “A lot of our investment in the Coca-Cola Foundation is through water stewardship and education.  We’re out there trying to promote people drinking healthy water and having access to clean sources of water, and we’re funding the systems to monitor and help cleanse water that isn’t healthy.”

Coca-Cola’s sustainability report is available at http://tinyurl.com/mqku6bd.

The Coca-Cola facility in Eagan uses municipal water for its employees and water drawn from the Jordan aquifer through noncommunity nontransient public water supply wells for its products.  The water for Dasani is disinfected and treated with reverse osmosis and nanofiltration to remove impurities and has a small amount of mineral salts added to enhance taste.  A company fact sheet says, “Because of purification and re-mineralized processes, Dasani and our other purified water brands provide a consistent taste wherever they are purchased, regardless of their source.”

“It’s really not the same as tap water,” adds Holt.

Public water systems are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and bottled water is regulated by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  In the case of the Minnesota bottlers, the water is regulated by both entities.

The Minnesota Department of Health, which enforces and administers the provisions of the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in the state, has a memorandum of understanding with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the regulatory arm for FDA. 

States have the option to regulate water-bottling facilities under the SDWA.  Although the majority of states have not chosen to regulate bottled water, a number of them, including Minnesota, have.  “We have limited our authority to regulate water bottlers to only those that use a private well and not those that use municipal water as a water supply source,” said Jerry Smith, head of the Noncommunity Public Water Supply Unit at MDH.  Of the approximately 20 water bottlers in the state, about 75 percent use their own water supply source.    “With a recent change in interpretation in how Minnesota Department of Agriculture is allowing the use of ‘treatment’ in the bottling process,  MDH is re-examining the existing memorandum of understanding with them and how this may affect our inclusion of water-bottling facilities that obtain water from a municipal source,” Smith added.  “Now, if city water is used for the product, we don’t regulate; the city water itself is already sampled and regulated.”  The Department of Agriculture continues to regulate and sample the finished product, covering the area of quality-control assurance.

Brenda Eschenbacher, a public-health sanitarian with the Noncommunity Unit, has been sampling water from the noncommunity wells before treatment.  Eschenbacher notes that MDH regulation with bottlers pertains only to bottled water, not to beverages such as soft drinks, carbonated water, juices, and sports drinks. 

Jim Roettger, the food standards compliance officer for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, notes that after MDH determines that the bottler’s source of water is safe, his department will license the facility and monitor the finished product.  The monitoring includes inspections of the bottling facilities and of the recordkeeping for sampling and laboratory analysis. 

Roettger adds that they may pull a certain number of bottles and sample it in their own lab.  The department rarely encounters a problem in the monitoring, and Roettger says that, in these instances, there are no contamination issues from a health standpoint; rather, the issue is mineral compounds that have only aesthetic effects.

Of the EPA regulations for public water supplies and FDA regulation of bottled water, Holt says, “The criteria are equally as stringent.”

Bottled Water Concerns
An FDA fact sheet includes a sidebar that reads, “Americans like bottled water.  According to the International Bottled Water Association, bottled water was the second most popular beverage in the U.S. in 2005, with Americans consuming more than 7.5 million gallons of bottled water—an average of 26 gallons per person.  Today, only carbonated soft drinks out sell bottled water.”  (Emphasis added by the FDA.)

Critics of bottled water maintain that the popularity touted in the FDA fact sheet points out the problem and call it “an advertising and marketing success” rather than a product that has risen in stature because of a need for it.

A Dasani “Myth versus Fact” information piece provided by Coca-Cola counters with the claim that bottled water is a personal choice and one that does not compete with tap water.  “It provides people with convenient access to clean, refreshing water that is easily portable in sealed containers.  Bottled water offers a consistency of taste and often, it contains unique mineral content.  For all of these reasons and more, people purchase bottled water to complement their use of tap water.”

On the criticism toward bottled water, Tim Wilkin, president of the Minnesota Beverage Association, says, “I think it is important to sort out the facts from the myths and make an informed decision.  Our members’ products give consumers options that provide convenience and a consistent taste that they seek.”

MDH regulators say the question is not whether tap water is better than bottled water or vice versa.  Rather, the emphasis is on customers being informed and not paying more for bottled water based on fears of the safety of tap water.

Representatives of Coca-Cola say they concur: “We’re all for informed choices.”

Blast from the Past: The Good Stuff

Bottled Water for Sale
On the subject of bottled water, the Summer 2008 Waterline included a story on an event at Corner Table Restaurant in Minneapolis where city officials and restaurant owners announced support of tap water along with plans to reduce or eliminate the use of bottled water. “The city supports local businesses that are modeling best practices, such as removing bottled water from their menus,” said Cara Letofsky, the policy director for the office R. T. Rybak, then the mayor of Minneapolis. Corner Table Restaurant owner Scott Pampuch noted the high quality of Minneapolis tap water, which he called “an extension” of his restaurant. Common Roots Café owner Danny Schwartzman, along with Anne Hunt of the office of St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman and Amber Collett of Corporate Accountability International, also attended.


Updated Tuesday, July 18, 2017 at 11:37AM