FDA inspectors have found some companies failed quality standards for bottled water, but the agency didn’t take significant action.
The government’s May 2018 report on Sweet Springs Valley Water Company, a bottled water manufacturer in West Virginia, was alarming. An inspector from the Food and Drug Administration, during a review of Sweet Springs’ test records, found that several months earlier the company had bottled and distributed water from a source contaminated with E. coli, a potentially deadly bacteria.
The inspector asked Sweet Springs’ manager, Mable Cox, whether she had considered recalling the bottled water, the report says. Cox had not. “She also stated the water had probably been consumed by this point, but she would conduct a recall” to alert people who might still have the water at home “if the FDA wanted her to.” That didn’t happen, either.
In other words, contaminated bottled water can still reach unwitting consumers, even if the FDA knows about the problem.
FDA inspections of bottled water facilities, though, declined by 33 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to data provided by the agency, and several years can pass between visits—meaning, as with Sweet Springs, the FDA might not become aware of contamination until long after it happened. Even when tests show contamination, in most cases manufacturers don’t have to stop bottling or alert the public—for instance, by issuing a press release.
“Companies should not be selling contaminated bottled water, so whenever their own testing finds a violation, they should recall that water,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior staff scientist at CR. “If they fail to do so voluntarily, the FDA should require them to.”
Standards for Tap Water Differ
Unlike bottled water, municipal water systems must notify their customers of test results showing contamination that could pose an immediate health risk, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates tap water. And the public must be alerted, such as through the media or by mail, when contamination is found in their tap supply. For the most serious violations, like potential waterborne diseases, municipal systems must notify the public within 24 hours; with other contamination issues, they have up to 30 days.
The EPA routinely cites tap water suppliers for not meeting the requirements: More than 3,000 community water systems, servicing 2.9 percent of the U.S. population, violated the Public Notification Rule during the most recent quarter for which EPA data is available. But tap water suppliers at least have a legal requirement to quickly inform the public “whenever this is an acute health risk,” Olson said. “It appears for bottled water that type of notification is not being done. That’s really worrisome.”
One of the pitfalls of the FDA’s policing policy is that it relies on bottlers to diligently record their test results and to act quickly when contamination is found—but beyond the failure to notify customers about water quality issues, bottlers also don’t always carefully review their own test results.
In a 2011 case, an FDA inspector cited a Colorado bottler, Deep Rock Water Company, after a review of test results showed the company had produced water with 20 parts per billion of bromate—a possible human carcinogen—which is twice the legal limit. But an official at the company tasked with reviewing the tests “had not noticed the result was too high,” according to the FDA’s inspection, even though the test said “Fail” and “exceeds FDA limits for bromate.” (Deep Rock was purchased by DS Services of America, a bottling company, in late 2011.)
The FDA’s Turney said only that the firm “appeared” to have corrected the bromate contamination, though the agency did not collect any samples to test and confirm. No recall was conducted. Turney said the water had been distributed for sale to consumers. A spokesperson for DS Services said the company can’t comment on what happened as a result of inspections that occurred before it had acquired Deep Rock.
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