Would you be willing to shell out a few more bucks for a product marketed as “spring” water than you would for plain old groundwater? A group of consumers say in a class-action lawsuit they wouldn’t have paid a premium for Nestlé’s Poland Spring water had they been aware it allegedly doesn’t come from natural springs in Maine.
A 325-page lawsuit [PDF] filed in Connecticut this week by eleven plaintiffs claims that for more than 20 years, Nestlé Waters’ marketing and sales of Poland Spring water has been “a colossal fraud perpetrated against American consumers.”
The average shopper associates spring water with a naturally occuring spring, signifying “purity and high quality,” the complaint says, thus allowing companies to charge a premium price compared to water that doesn’t come from a spring, like filtered tap water.
The group of plaintiffs claim that Nestlé has been selling common bottled groundwater under the Poland Spring brand since 1993 and illegally mislabeling it “100% Natural Spring Water.”
Spring water, defined
The complaint alleges that “not one drop” of Poland Spring Water emanates from a water source that complies with the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of spring water.
That standard says that water “derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth may be ‘spring water.'” It can only be collected at the spring, or through a bore hole that taps into the underground formation feeding the spring. A natural force should also cause the water to flow to the surface “through a natural orifice.”
Any spring water that’s collected “with use of an external force” has to be from the same underground stratum as the spring, and there has to be a “measurable hydraulic connection using a hydrogeologically valid method between the bore hole and the natural spring.”
In addition, the water must have “all the physical properties, before treatment, and be of the same composition and quality, as the water that flows naturally to the surface of the earth.”
The lawsuit claims that Nestlé “misidentifies hundreds of millions of gallons of Poland Spring Water as ‘spring water,'” and has allegedly misrepresented on every Poland Spring Water label that the water in the bottle came from one or more of eight purported “natural springs” in Maine.
Rather than being collected from “pristine mountain or forest springs as the images on those labels depict, Poland Spring Water products all contain ordinary groundwater that defendant collects from wells it drilled in saturated plains or valleys where the water table is within a few feet of the earth’s surface,” the lawsuit claims.
To that end, most of the water is collected from Maine’s most populous counties in the southwestern part of the state, the complaint alleges, and not in remote natural surroundings.
The plaintiffs assert that building a well to draw water from a large aquifer that happens to feed a spring popping up elsewhere “does not qualify the well water as spring water.”
“The wells must tap the aquifer at the same layer, or stratum, from which water flows naturally into the spring, and the well water must be proven by valid scientific means to be interconnected with the water flowing at the spring,” the lawsuit claims.
The complaint also alleges that none of Nestlé’s eight sites in Maine are hydraulically connected to water that flows from the natural orifice of a genuine spring; nor do they contain water that is collected from the same underground stratum that feeds a natural spring; and no Poland Spring products contain water that has the same “physical, chemical and quality characteristics as water that flows from the natural orifice of a genuine spring.”
Noting that Nestlé bottles 1 billion gallons of Poland Spring water per year, the complaint points out that even if the eight sites the company uses to bottle water did contain a spring, it would have to flow at an average rate of 245 gallons per minute. That’s more force than a two-inch diameter fire hose spraying at 40 pounds per square inch.
“Such a spring would be plainly visible – more like a geyser than a spring – and undoubtedly well known,” the lawsuit states. “Yet there is no photographic proof that even one such spring – much less eight – exists on or near defendant’s sites in Maine.”
To that end, the complaint claims there is no historical evidence for six of the purported springs, and that two are former springs that no longer exist.
“The famous Poland Spring in Poland Spring, Maine, which Defendant’s labels claim is a source of Poland Spring Water, ran dry nearly 50 years ago, decades before Defendant bought the Poland Spring brand name,” reads the lawsuit. “The ‘spring’ Defendant now claims exists in Poland Spring is at the bottom of a lake. It has never been proven to exist, and the evidence that Defendant itself filed with Maine regulators shows it does not exist.”
The lawsuit even claims that Nestlé has taken extreme measures to fake springs on its sites, “by causing well water to flow artificially through pipes or plastic tubes into wetlands that contain no genuine springs.”
Such man-made springs don’t satisfy FDA standards, the complaint says.
As a result, Poland Spring water doesn’t qualify as spring water, “and cannot be lawfully labeled or sold as ‘spring water,’ much less as ‘100% Natural Spring Water,'” the lawsuit states. To that end, those products should be labeled and sold as “bottled water,” “drinking water,” “well water,” even “purified water” or a particular type of purified water, the complaint suggests.
The lawsuit is seeking class certification, an injunction, and at least $5 million in damages for false advertising, breach of contract, deceptive labeling, and consumer-law violations.
Nestlé defends its water
In a statement to Consumerist, a spokesperson for Nestlé Waters North America says the claims made in the lawsuit are without merit and “an obvious attempt to manipulate the legal system for personal gain.”
“Poland Spring is 100% spring water,” the statement reads. “It meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations defining spring water, all state regulations governing spring classification for standards of identity, as well as all federal and state regulations governing spring water collection, good manufacturing practices, product quality, and labeling. We remain highly confident in our legal position.”
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Consumerist.