There is a strong need for all bottled, or packaged, water producers to comply with stringent legislation and meet globally benchmarked standards to prevent gross disservice to the bottled water industry and the consumer, says South African National Bottled Water Association CEO Charlotte Metcalf.
“There are companies producing what they claim is bottled water or bottled water alternatives, but falling well short of complying with local legislation and standards.”
She points out that bottled water is legislated as a food product and is therefore regulated by the Department of Health; versus drinking water, which needs to comply with public water supply regulations.
There are three types of bottled water in South Africa – those bottled from natural waters, water defined by origin, and prepared water. These need to adhere to all food hygienic design and hygienic handling legislation; microbiological legislation, or the regulations governing microbiological standards for foodstuffs and related matters, known as R.692. They also need to conform to treatment, labelling and chemical regulations according to R.718; as well as adhere to the regulations regarding labelling and advertising of foodstuffs, in R.146.
“Waters that do not comply with these regulations should not compare themselves to those waters that do,” Metcalf avers.
If water is refilled in the consumer’s container, it constitutes drinking water and does not have to comply with the stringent standards set out for packaged water, she notes.
However, water bottled in a retail or restaurant environment by the establishment should conform to packaged water legislation.
“This is, however, mostly impractical as it is difficult to impossible to maintain a hygienic food production facility with adequate hygienic design, processing and testing protocols in such an environment.”
Metcalf further laments that consumers are not aware of how often the water sources and final product for these water systems are tested and that there is no guarantee of how often filters are changed, as costs could play a role in stretching the change-out cycle for the filters.
“Then, because these systems do not operate in a clean-room environment, secondary contamination from air and poorly sterilised containers and handling is a given. “Some systems mostly claim to remove chlorine, the water they offer effectively therefore have no defence against the growth of bacteria and other microbiological organisms after filling into a container.”
Metcalf adds that the removal of chlorine and microorganisms is a far cry from adhering to the full chemicals and microbiological requirements for packaged water. According to South African legislation, the data on shelf-life needs to be disclosed, which is often not the case in retail filling environments.
“If the system itself and the containers it is refilling are not properly cleaned and sterilised, they quickly become a breeding ground for bacteria. “In fact, the Grolsch-type closure is one of the worst offenders, as that little rubber washer is notoriously difficult to sterilise,” she comments.
However, she adds that consumers can contribute to the protection of the water system by questioning claims made by cheap products because the cost of environmental surveys to ensure source sustainability, as well as the construction of a hygienic bottling facility, costs more than what people think is factored into the price.
“If the product is cheap, chances are that the source is not what it claims to be or the production facilities are not what they should be,” she concludes.