News of the Food
By Stett Holbrook
Do you ever read the stuff that comes with your water bill? You should. By law, public water agencies are required to test their water supply and publish the results. It can make for some interesting reading, reading that you won't find on, say, a bottle of Evian.
These days, public water doesn't have the same cachet as brand-name H2O. As a result, bottled water is now big business and the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry. But unlike public water supplies, private water companies--increasingly owned by corporate giants like Coca-Cola and Nestlé--don't tell you what's in their water. In fact, lowly tap water is generally a safer source of drinking water because the water quality is well regulated.
"Inside the Bottle," a new report written by the Polaris Institute, takes a highly critical look at the booming water industry. The report (available at www.polarisinstitute.org), focuses on the domination of the bottled industry by Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Danone. The report upbraids the big four on several grounds including: marking up the price of water they get on the cheap from rural springs and public water systems;producing a product that is not necessarily safer than, nor as regulated as, tap water;packaging it in plastic bottles made of toxic chemicals that are environmentally destructive;and marketing it to an unsuspecting public as "pure, healthy, safe drinking water."
Not surprisingly, the International Bottled Water Association doesn't like the report.
"The Polaris Institute's focus on bottled water," says Stephen R. Kay, IBWA vice president of communications, "singles out the bottled-water industry--from among the thousands of industrial water users--for scrutiny that will do nothing to protect and preserve renewable groundwater resources and do nothing to arrive at an effective water policy. . . . It is difficult to imagine what the goal of the Polaris Institute is. With obvious anticorporate bias, the Polaris Institute uses a broad brush to stigmatize an entire industry."
Report author Tony Clarke took the IBWA's criticisms as a sign that the industry fears scrutiny. "The IBWA has put up a weak defense in response to the challenges outlined in our report," says Clarke. "Their claim that bottled water is a well-regulated industry, which does not drain groundwater resources, pays adequate fees for its water takings, packages water in safe containers and provides all people with a healthy form of hydration, is both false and misleading."
Clarke notes that the IBWA didn't address many of the issues raised in the report, such as the industry's price-gouging practices, deceptive advertising techniques, irregular and inadequate water-quality testing, exclusive marketing contracts in schools and various devices used to undermine public confidence in tap water.
Like your water bill, the report is worth reading.
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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.