Bottled water faces wave of FDA rules

April 04, 1993|By Leslie Weddell | Leslie Weddell,Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph

Winds of change are blowing across the water.

Bottled water, that is.

Along with the push for accuracy in food labeling comes a federal proposal for standard definitions of the various terms used on labels of bottled water.

Americans pay 200 to 1,000 times more for bottled water than for tap water -- even though a quarter of all bottled water comes from the same source as tap water, and the Food and Drug Administration believes consumers are entitled to know what's in that water.

The standardized definitions, which go into effect July 6, define such terms as "spring water," "artesian water" and "mineral water"; require that labels use the terms truthfully; and require that the quality of bottled water is at least as high as that of tap water.

The quality of tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency; bottled water is regulated by the FDA.

The FDA regulations come at a time when more consumers are looking for alternatives to municipal water.

"Bottled water is the fastest growing of all beverage categories," said Lisa Prats, vice president of the International Bottled Water Association. "During the '80s there was a 400 percent increase in bottled water sales."

"We want to ensure that bottled water is labeled truthfully. If the label says it's mineral water, it should be mineral water. If it's from a municipal water source, the water should be so labeled," FDA Commissioner Dr. David A. Kessler said. (This requirement would be dropped if municipal water were used but processed (( and treated so that it could be labeled "distilled" or "purified" water.)

The FDA has been under pressure to set standards for bottled water in part because of the extraordinary rise in per-capita consumption. That pressure increased after benzene, a carcinogen, was found in bottles of Perrier in 1990.

As with the new food-labeling regulations, a product's name and label must convey accurate information. If such words as "spring," "well," "artesian" or "mineral" are in the name, the water must be from such a source. If not, the label must state its true source in typeface at least equal in size to the name. If an image of water coming from a mountain spring is on the label, the product must be spring water; if not, the label must state that it isn't spring water. And if bottled water marketed for infants hasn't been sterilized, the label must state that fact.

The regulations also require the label to state the presence of significant amounts of such substances as calcium, sodium and iron.

The standards for "significant amounts" are, with one exception, the same as the EPA standards for municipal water. The FDA adopted a lower maximum level for lead -- 5 parts per billion -- than the EPA's standard, 15 parts per billion.

Fluoride does not have to be labeled if it is naturally occurring and less than the maximum contaminant level (4 parts per million).

When the EPA adds or amends a contaminant level for municipal water, the FDA must adopt a level for it in bottled water, or publish in the Federal Register its reasons for not doing so. Thus, bottled water must meet EPA's purity and safety requirements for public water.

The new, standardized definitions cover terms used by bottled-water labels, including "mineral," "spring," "artesian," "well," "distilled" and "purified." They won't apply to non-mineral carbonated waters, including seltzer, soda and tonic waters, which are considered soft drinks.

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