RICHMOND, Vt. -- There is a new program to certify bottled water according to its source, viewed as a way for a bottled water manufacturer to differentiate its product in the marketplace, and as a way for consumers to figure out if they want to pay a premium price for it.
Quality Assurance International here and in San Diego, Calif., a third-party certifier to the organic food and beverage industry, is offering this certification to give recognition to high-quality waters that come from the source without needing purification.
"If you bottled it in a warehouse, you can't say 'spring' and you shouldn't have a picture of a mountain on the label," said Jake Lewin, QAI Source Certification program manager, who works in Santa Cruz, Calif. QAI's Source Certification program provides third-party verification of "bottled at the source" claims. So far, it has certified Fiji Natural Artesian Water, from the Fiji Islands, and Trinity Springs, based in Ketcham, Idaho. Several others are reportedly in the process.
There is still an important niche filled by basic waters. In order to be a member of the International Bottled Water Association, an industry group in Alexandria, Va., a company is required to be certified by NSF -- the National Sanitary Foundation. "It has an excellent program for ensuring that products are safe, which is really important, but it doesn't provide the same way to distinguish your product," said Lewin.
In addition, bottled water is under the jurisdiction of the federal Food and Drug Administration, and the states impose a variety of different standards.
"Bottled at the Source P.W.S." appears on the label of Aquafina bottled water. The P.W.S. means "public water supply, so in other words it would be the municipal water wherever the bottling plant or purification system is," said Bart Casabona, a spokesman for Pepsi, Purchase, N.Y., which owns Aquafina.
However, some might say Bottled at the Source is misleading if it means a municipal water supply, especially if the P.W.S. is not spelled out.
Dasani, a product of Coca-Cola Co., plainly states on its label that it is filtered, using reverse osmosis, "and enhanced with minerals for a pure, fresh taste."
"I just want people to be informed so they can make a decision that is right for them," said Sharon Egan, director of marketing for Trinity Springs. "Why should they be paying 69 cents for a bottle of water when they could turn their tap on and get the same thing? It's the convenience, it's packaged for them and I understand that. However, I think that all bottlers should give the people the information they need to make an informed choice."
Trinity is launching a marketing push to familiarize consumers with its source certification, Egan said. It will rely on point-of-sale material at the grocery shelf, where consumers make their decisions.
The cost of this source certification is fairly competitive with other types of certifications, Lewin said. Its focus is toward the consumer rather than being a health and safety verification.
"There really is a lot of confusion in the market, and intense competition, about which waters are better. There are premium unique products that really are a notch above the rest. Those are the ones that we are interested in certifying," Lewin told SN.
QAI uses the international Codex Alimentarius (Latin for Food Code) as a base. That is a repository of standards for the world, and is an agency of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and of the World Health Organization. It says bottled water should not be treated with harsh chemicals, ultraviolet light or reverse osmosis, and it should be bottled at the source. Countries that don't have the infrastructure to develop their own bottled water standards adopt these, Joe Smillie, senior vice president of QAI, told SN. "We found really good water regulations that very few waters in the U.S. would comply with," Smillie said. "They have to be pure, tested and bottled at the source, so we looked at it very carefully and we adopted the Codex Alimentarius for the program we have launched called Source Certification."
Asked if bottled-at-the-source is better, Lewin said it is typically a higher quality product. "It's not treated. It's what people expect when they buy bottled water. They assume it's coming from the ground, when it might be municipal water that is filtered."
"Water is a huge category. People are making a fortune, using municipal water and running it through reverse osmosis and charging a fortune for it," said Smillie.
Indeed, the IBWA says that for the year 2002, bottled water was a $7.7 billion industry, including home and office segments.
"The Codex Alimentarius standards create a classification for what I would call a premium water, which doesn't exist now," Smillie said. "There is a screaming need for it."