Looking for Info About Bottled Water Quality? Good Luck.

6 surprising things CR learned while digging into the industry

bottled water GettyImages-510340881

A dead frog in a bottle of purified bottled water might seem pretty memorable. But not, apparently, to the New Jersey Department of Health. Though the state’s 2012 annual report on bottled water mentions a consumer complaint about the incident, the agency has no record of its probe into the potential unusual contamination, according to the state’s response to a public records request recently filed by Consumer Reports.

The incident isn’t just bizarre—it also underscores how little information is readily available to consumers interested in the quality of their bottled water, and how hard it can be for them to get it.

More on Bottled Water

Unlike tap water, there is no public repository of information for consumers to look up the quality of their favorite bottled water brand and see whether it is free of contaminants. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require companies to submit test reports each year for review, and instead asks only that results be made available during inspections, which typically happen every year or two. And while several states receive test results each year as part of the permitting process bottlers go through to sell their product, those are often available only through public records requests.

The International Bottled Water Association, the industry’s main lobby group, says it supports companies voluntarily providing information about bottled water quality to consumers who ask for it. “Consumers who want to know more about what is in their bottled water product should contact the manufacturer and request a water quality report,” says IBWA spokesperson Sabrina Hicks. “If a bottled water company does not satisfy a consumer’s request for more information, that consumer can and should choose another brand.”

However, in CR’s quest to track down information about the quality of the nation’s bottled water, we encountered a number of roadblocks and red flags, even in states such as New Jersey and California, which have some of the most robust bottled-water quality regulations in the country and were a primary focus of our research into obtaining info on bottled water quality. Here are six notable ones:

1. California says it throws out its mandatory bottle water reports. California requires bottled water makers to submit quality reports every year to the state, and to provide those reports upon request to consumers. So we asked the state’s health department for copies of those reports—but the agency said it disposes of them after determining that companies are in compliance with state rules. A California spokesperson told us that to get the reports we would need to contact the companies directly.

2. Regulators missed violations that CR found. After CR tracked down many of those bottled water reports directly from companies, we found several violations California regulators apparently missed. For example, California law requires that companies clearly note on their reports when their product has arsenic levels between 5 and 10 parts per billion. But we found one bottler, Crystal Creamery, that failed to include that alert though its water had arsenic levels in that range. (The company no longer sells bottled water.) And when we asked about results from another company, Niagara Bottling, showing its spring water with 8 ppb of arsenic, regulators told us they contacted the company and found that was a typo. Niagara then filed a corrected report, showing it had about 1 pbb of arsenic. A spokesperson for the California DOH said it “appreciates you bringing this to our attention.”

3. New Jersey regulators submitted identical copies of its annual water reports two years in a row–and no one seemed to notice until CR asked. New Jersey requires its Department of Health to submit an annual report on the quality of bottled water sold in the state. But when CR asked for all available annual reports, we found that the 2014 report was identical to the 2013 report, with only the dates on the cover changed. Apparently no one had noticed until CR asked.

When the agency ultimately reproduced the proper report, it showed, among other things, that state testing had found one brand of water—Peñafiel, owned by Keurig Dr Pepper—with arsenic levels above the federal cutoff of 10 ppb, and an importer was required to destroy the product as a result. (After CR tested several samples of that water and confirmed that it still had elevated levels, the company announced on April 15 that it was temporarily shutting down production to correct the problem; the FDA said an investigation had been launched.)

4. Your water might not be what it seems. The labeling of bottled waters is a constant source of confusion. The government has established some Standards of Identity for bottled water, essentially defining terms such as “spring water” and “purified water.” Nestlé is facing litigation over the marketing of its Poland Spring brand as “spring water,” with the lawsuit contending it doesn’t contain “a single drop” of genuine spring water. (Nestlé denies the claims and says it is appealing the ruling.)

We found other examples that could give consumers pause, as well. For example, in 2017 California regulators found that a small store in Rialto, Calif., claiming to sell “alkaline” bottled water was instead simply refilling used plastic water bottles with water from the local municipal supply, according to public records obtained from California’s health department. The bottles displayed for sale, they added, “were not properly sealed.” And there is no legal standard of identity for “alkaline” water, anyway, according to the FDA.

5. There is no comprehensive list of bottled water makers. Even the Beverage Marketing Corporation, a go-to source for info on the industry, doesn’t maintain a current list of bottled water makers in the U.S. CR was ultimately able to identify 237 brands consumers may have access to today but had to piece that information together from multiple state regulators and other public sources, and we are still unsure whether the list is complete. Of those 237, CR was able to obtain bottled water quality test reports from only 126—53 percent—by either visiting the brand’s website or contacting the manufacturer directly. The remaining bottlers didn’t responded to our queries or failed to provide us with a report.

6. The industry website meant to house bottled water reports is full of broken links. The IBWA website does include a page that lists all brands that belong to the association, and links to many of the brands’ websites and quality reports. But 63 of the 108 links to bottled water reports—58 percent—didn’t lead to the appropriate information or were broken as of April 23, 2019. For brand websites, 28 of 164 links—about 17 percent—didn’t lead to the correct site or were broken. Even popular brands such as Evian and Niagara Bottling had broken links to their websites, bottled water quality reports, or both.

When asked about this, Jill Culora, vice president of communications at the IBWA, said the association was in the process of moving its old site to a new platform and updating the design.

“We are aware that the current website has a few broken links and some outdated information, and we are working to fix these problems,” Culora said. “This effort has been made more complicated because we switched website vendors. Thank you for bringing this particular issue to our attention. We hope to have our new website up and running as soon as possible.”

With information about bottled water quality so inconsistent, what’s a consumer to do? You can try contacting a company directly for its bottled water report, either by going to its website or calling its phone number; some list that on the bottles. But even that is hit or miss.

So as a stopgap, CR is posting all the bottled water reports we have gathered so far.

Head shot of Ryan Felton, a CR author of investigative reports and special projects

Ryan Felton

I'm an investigative journalist with an appetite to cover anything and everything. My job and goal is to dig into complicated issues that affect people's health, safety, and bottom line. I've covered everything from dangerous tires to subprime lending to corporate malfeasance. Got a tip? Drop me an email ( ryan.felton@consumer.org), or follow me on Twitter ( @ryanfelton) for my contact info on Signal.