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It has been a marketer’s dream: Take a free, natural resource from easily accessible sources, package it, and sell it for a lot of money to consumers happy to pay. Thus, bottled water enjoyed double-digit growth, year over year, asU.S.consumers doubled the amount they drank during 1997 to 2007, from 13.4 to 29.3 gallons per year.

Such a dream can turn into a nightmare though. Bottled and tap water companies currently operate under different regulations, and some government agencies are arguing they should be the same, with bottle labeling subject to regulations as detailed as those the tap water companies experience.

Bottled water, as a food product, currently is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so it lists nutrition information and ingredients on the labels (i.e., 0 percent of most nutrients; Contents: Water). In contrast, municipal water is controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has more authority to enforce quality standards. For instance, statutes limit the amount of phthalates in tap water,  but bottled water can contain an unlimited amount, because the FDA has not established a standard for this chemical.

The result of these disparate regulations may be misinformed consumers, many of whom believe bottled water is safer and healthier than tap water. If bottled water labels provided more information, consumers might be able to make better informed, more educated decisions for themselves based on data such as the process and chemicals used in bottling the water.

Even without such regulations though, consumers may be changing their attitudes; in 2008, the bottled water industry experienced flat growth for the first time. The cause may be the economic downturn, which has forced consumers to cut their spending. Environmental concerns may be another factor; the bottles create significant waste and their transportation to market leave a colossal carbon footprint.   In the end, consumers in some markets like New York City have realized that tap water tastes just as good or better than bottled water.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why have bottled water sales dropped? 
  2. Why is better labeling appropriate for this industry?

Associated Press, “Stricter Labeling Urged for Bottled Water,” The Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2009.