By Carlos David Mongollón

Water stores wading in potential quagmire for industry
An interesting item on water stores caught my eye recently from the San Jose Mercury News in California. The June 6 article was about a state Department of Health Services (DHS) survey of stores selling “filtered tap water” in Santa Clara County. Seems 20 were found to be operating without a license, three had “unsanitary” conditions and seven failed to do required water safety tests. The survey was prompted by an April report by the newspaper that showed, of the 69 water stores that opened in the county in the previous decade, less than half bothered to secure the required license. The newspaper also found there hadn’t been any state inspections since 1997.

This is a potential black eye for the water treatment industry in general, similar to a 1998 study by Los Angeles County health officials that pasted one on the water vending machine market. While a follow-up study by DHS showed the L.A. officials to be overzealous in their interpretation of much of the data, the damage was already done. Companies like Glacier Water—the 800-pound gorilla in vending—were hard hit and even today haven’t fully recovered. Glacier’s stock, as high as $32 in 1998, traded in mid-June at $7.55 a common share.

DHS Food & Safety Program chief Jim Waddell—who couldn’t be reached for immediate comment—claimed even those stores cited didn’t pose a public health risk because: 1) unsanitary violations were mostly for dirty floors or counters; 2) inadequate plumbing didn’t warrant immediate action; and 3) water dispensed was already treated municipally. Yet some water had lead and bacteria levels that would require municipalities to warn consumers. Waddell was quoted as saying he didn’t have the resources to increase inspections and, with more pressing responsibilities as to food safety, water stores were “low on our priority scale.”

Some store owners didn’t know they were required to be licensed, the newspaper noted. As part of the state’s license application, water stores must have water samples screened at a state-certified water-testing lab for bacterial content, lead and VOCs. California law also requires they test for bacterial content every six months and renew licenses annually. Lastly, the application is in English only when a number of store operators are non-native speakers.

These are all unsettling issues, particularly because growth in water stores in California—which leads the nation in the category—has been enormous. Even Waddell admits the water store boom has been hard to keep up with. California Bottled Water Association president Kent Hill noted that water stores make up 10-12 percent of the bottled water market in the state. A typical store dispenses 700 to 1,000 gallons on a busy day. Many customers are lower-income consumers who believe the water is better than tap water and put their trust in operators and public health officials to properly monitor the quality.

“But for a lot of these water stores, the customer provides the bottle,” noted bottled water consultant Bob Hidell of Hidell-Eyster International. “It’s important operators remind customers to use clean bottles when filling. Quite often, they continue to reuse the same ones without sanitizing. That’s the biggest potential problem and one largely out of the operator’s control.”

Water stores offer a viable, convenient “u-fill-it” option for consumers looking for an alternative to tap water, but that viability is only as good as the operator’s knowledge of water quality monitoring and treatment requirements. Licensing is designed to assure they meet minimum industry or government standards. Consumers should ask to see a store’s license and most recent test results. Beyond that, though, it’s important for some association—IBWA or WQA—to push for these stores to become members if only to improve the professionalism of operators and protect the industry’s image as well as the public health. No illnesses have been reported. Let’s keep it that way.


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