The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) just-released report on bottled water contamination has set off a firestorm of news coverage – and generated the expected response from industry leaders like Nestle Waters of North America.
EWG bought bottled water from ten leading bottled water brands in different regions, tested them, and discovered all exhibited some form of contamination. Two brands were named as containing illegal amounts of contaminants (neither was related to Nestle), and the eight remaining brands haven’t been identified.
Web searches reveal alarming stories in most major newspapers and Web sites – far too many to list here.
Predictably, the industry tried to contain the damage and counter the report – the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) immediately went on the offensive by questioning the report’s methodology, and Nestle Waters of North America – an industry leader – also fired off a statement.
Today – in a press release sourced to Nestle – a Nestle/IBWA consultant (a Yale scientist) questioned EWG’s methodology, though the EWG quickly defended its methods and conclusions in this counter.
Frankly, many of the objections to the report amount to name-calling, though one central contention revolves around the presence of HPC – a naturally occurring bacteria.
Nestle’s consultant – Dr. Stephen C. Edberg – said:
Heterotropic Plate Count (HPC) as a measure of overall bacterial contamination: “HPC is a naturally occurring bacteria. In 1992, the US Environmental Protection Agency considered using an HPC in its new total coliform rule. It found no association between these naturally occurring bacteria and human health. While in 2002, the World Health Organization concluded that HPC were natural and did not result in an adverse health effect.”
The EWG countered with:
Fact: EPA clearly states on its Safewater website that the presence of bacteria, measured by the HPC method, serve as an indicator of the overall hygiene at the production site. EWG measured bacteria in the context of EPA’s judgment that “The lower the concentration of bacteria in drinking water, the better maintained the water system is.”
To be honest, many of the IBWA and Nestle’s contentions have a feel eerily similar to those used by Nestle during the recent tainted milk scandal in Asia, where Nestle products were found to be tainted with small percentages of melamine.
As news of the contamination spread (four babies died and over 53,000 were sickened), Nestle immediately issued a statement saying its products were “absolutely safe.”
Soon thereafter, melamine was found in small amounts in Nestle products in Hong Kong and the Phillipines, and Nestle’s response would have been amusing if it wasn’t so cavalier – they said the amounts of contaminant found weren’t significant, though I suspect they’d feel differently if their own babies were consuming the stuff.
In light of Nestle’s “PR first” approach to controversey, Nestle’s approach to the bottled water scandal seems predictable, though odd in light of this fact: As of yet, they haven’t been accused of selling tainted bottled water, though the spectre of the eight-as-yet-unnamed brands of water hang over the whole industry.
I spoke to the EWG about identifying those eight brands, who said they may release the information in the future if further testing reveals problems.
The bottled water industry is getting hammered on all sides; Pepsico is shedding jobs and closing 16 plants due to declines in demand for bottled water.
The latest hit – one that strikes directly at industry claims of the purity and healthfulness of its products – isn’t going to help.