LaCroix Sparkling Water Mystery Reveals Gaps in Regulation of Carbonated Bottled Water
The brand lacks a necessary permit to be sold in Massachusetts, a regulator tells Consumer Reports
Update: On June 26, LaCroix announced it had received a permit from Massachusetts to sell its carbonated water in the state. The action followed a report from CR showing that the company previously lacked a permit. The state has still not responded to CR's public records request seeking results of the most recent quality test results for LaCroix.
This story was originally published on June 18, 2019.
What's in the popular sparkling water LaCroix? The question has sparked fascination on the internet, as consumers have tried to understand what gave the popular beverage its flavor, and even became a focal point in recent litigation. LaCroix's parent company, National Beverage Corp., offers little insight, saying only that its carbonated water is flavored with "natural essence oils."
Consumer Reports tried to unpack the beverage's vague backstory by turning to Massachusetts, one of apparently only a few states in the U.S. that requires carbonated water manufacturers to obtain a permit to sell its product, as well as submit water-quality test results to regulators. Late last month, CR filed a public records request for National Beverage's most recently submitted quality test results for LaCroix.
But the mystery of LaCroix carries on.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health told CR that it doesn't have a permit on file for National Beverage to sell in the state, nor did it have any test results that could be provided.
The situation reveals an unusual quirk of food safety regulations: Federal and state regulations typically treat artificially carbonated waters—including club soda, tonic water, seltzer, and sparkling water—differently than bottled water. (Sparkling mineral water, which is naturally carbonated and contains natural minerals, is regulated like bottled water.) And even in states that have added oversight of those fizzy waters, there's apparently occasional slip-ups in enforcement.
The LaCroix Mystery Continues
Massachusetts' health department sent National Beverage a notice dated June 4 to submit the necessary paperwork for LaCroix or face potential legal consequences, says Ann Scales, a spokesperson for the agency.
Scales says the state could fine the company or bar it from selling LaCroix in the state if it fails to correct the situation.
National Beverage told CR in a statement that it is subject to regulations of "numerous states and localities that vary on a market-by-market basis," and that it received a letter from Massachusetts regulators on June 10, "following a recent file review by the Commonwealth."
"The Company intends to work with the Commonwealth to provide all requested information in a timely fashion," the statement said.
Different Water, Different Rules
The disconnect between the FDA’s oversight of bottled water and its fizzy counterparts has been criticized in the past. For example, in the late 1990s, after the FDA create a more robust set of regulations for bottled water, Olson, at the NRDC, urged the agency to regulate carbonated waters under the same set of rules as still or spring bottled water.
"We doubt that most consumers would agree that water in a bottle listed on the ingredient label as 'water' or 'sparkling water' or 'filtered water' should be exempted from the specific health-protection standards that cover any other bottled water," Olson wrote at the time.
Carbonated waters include club soda (infused with sodium, potassium, or other minerals), tonic water (infused with minerals and quinine), and seltzer or sparkling water (with carbonation alone or infused with flavors).
The agency conceded in the mid-1990s that carbonated waters "may constitute a major portion of some consumers' daily water intake." But ultimately it decided that, because there were already different standards in place for bottled water and carbonated products, there was no reason to make a change. And the agency doesn't appear to have plans to change that approach anytime soon.
As a result, it’s still harder for consumers to get information about the quality of carbonated waters than for bottled waters. And, as CR previously reported, even information about bottled water can be hard to get.
Though the FDA has general oversight of bottled water, it relies on states to conduct facility inspections and monitor compliance with quality standards. States have leeway, like Massachusetts, to enforce the same standards for carbonated water that exist for bottled water, but many don't, creating a patchwork of regulations across the country.
Consumers interested about how their state oversees carbonated and seltzer waters could contact their relevant state authority and ask whether those products are regulated similarly as bottled water. Companies generally include contact information on the side of their product, too.