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    A Little Secret About Bottled Water Containers Say It Expires, But Evidence for That Is Scant; Blame
    It on New Jersey By Andrea Petersen Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

    It's rough enough that the millions of Americans who buy bottled water are paying for something that
    used to basically be free. But even harder to stomach is the message that comes on the bottle: Like
    milk and eggs, water now "expires."

    Most commercially produced water comes stamped with expiration dates -- typically within two years
    of when it was bottled. On most Poland Spring bottles there are tiny, white letters advising
    consumers to drink up within two years. Most Aquafina bottles sport two-year expiration warnings on
    their caps. In general, the dates on bottled water include the prefix "EXP," meaning "expires." Fiji
    brand water has a slightly different approach: Its bottles say "Best by" followed by the date. Coca-
    Cola Inc. puts a one-year expiration date on its Dasani brand water.

    The message that water has a shelf life has been further amplified in the wake of Sept. 11. The U.S.
    Department of Homeland Security urges people to stockpile water in their disaster-preparedness kits.
    On its Web site (www.ready.gov), it instructs people to change their stored water every six months.

    The American Red Cross also advises people via its Web site to replace their stored water every six
    months. But when contacted, the organization's manager of disaster education, Rocky Lopes, says
    people should replace their bottled water before its expiration date. "The water should be replaced
    if the manufacturer determines there is a reason for it," he says.

    But does water really spoil? Despite the labels reminding consumers to drink up, there is virtually
    no evidence that drinking water beyond the expiration date has any health impact at all. The Food
    and Drug Administration considers bottled water to have an "indefinite shelf life." Even the bottled-
    water industry is hard-pressed to justify the labels.

    "There's no real rationale," says Jane Lazgin, a spokeswoman for Nestle Waters North America Inc., a
    division of Nestle SA that bottles brands including Poland Spring and Ice Mountain, and imports
    European waters such as Perrier and Vittel. The practice "is not health-based," she adds.

    Still, some shoppers are heeding these directives. If bottled water is past its expiration date,
    "there's probably something wrong with it," says John Bohan, a 39-year-old father of three in Los
    Angeles who drinks only bottled or filtered water. "I would drink bad tap water over post-dated
    bottled water."

    Expiration dates are just one example of how shifting tastes and successful marketing have
    complicated what was once one of life's simpler acts -- drinking water. This year, for the first
    time, Americans are expected to buy more bottled water than beer or coffee. Sales of bottled water
    reached $7.7 billion in 2002, up 12% from 2001, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York-
    based consulting company. Even dogs now have bottled-water options -- K9 Water Co. makes chicken-
    and beef-flavored waters.

    Store shelves are filled with a baffling array of options, from "spring water" and "artesian water"
    to "purified water" and "drinking water." (The latter is often industry code for filtered tap
    water.) And, for all the popularity of bottled water, there is little evidence that it's any better
    for you than what flows from the faucet.

    Some bottled water makers say that they use expiration dates for taste, and not health reasons. A
    Coca-Cola spokeswoman, Susan McDermott, says the company has done research on its own Dasani brand
    showing that the taste of its bottled water changes after its one-year expiration date. But, she
    adds: "It is probably not something the average person will notice." Manufacturers also say most
    people drink their water well short of the industry average two-year mark.

    The government says that the recommendation on the Department of Homeland Security Web site is
    really directed at people who bottle their own tap water. Unsealed containers could allow bacteria
    or other contaminants into the water that could multiply, experts say. It's unclear, however, how
    many people take the time to fill milk jugs or soda bottles with tap water and store it as part of
    their disaster-supply kits.

    The issue of expiration dates is a long-running one that extends beyond water. Though government
    regulations require expiration dates on certain foods and medicines, critics say some prompt
    consumers to unnecessarily toss things out and re-stock. A study by the U.S. military in the 1980s
    found that 90% of the prescription and over-the-counter drugs it studied were effective well past
    their expiration dates.

    To some degree, the fact that bottled water carries expiration dates can be blamed on New Jersey,
    the only state that officially requires it. That regulation dates back to 1987, though it's not
    completely clear what prompted it. The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services says only
    that: "The intent of the law was to protect the safety and quality of drinking water."

    The industry says that, given the New Jersey law, it's easier -- and cheaper -- for water companies
    to stamp dates on every bottle, whatever the destination, than to do it selectively. "That's why
    you'll see it, so you don't have a hodge-podge of labels going to different states," says Stephen
    Kay of the International Bottled Water Association, an industry trade group. (A handful of other
    states, including New York, Michigan and Louisiana, require manufacturers to stamp packages with the
    bottling date, but don't insist on expiration dates.)

    Some consumers don't take the expiration dates on bottled water all that seriously. John Rosenblatt,
    a 35-year-old television producer in New York, has stashed a five-gallon jug of water and a couple
    of cases of Poland Spring along with the canned food, gas masks and money he says he might need in
    an emergency. He plans to keep the water after its expiration date -- and drink it.

    Others outside of the industry back the notion that the taste of a bottle of water can shift
    slightly over time. One explanation, according to some, is that the minerals that either naturally
    occur in some bottled water or are added during manufacturing may settle. The result can be water
    that tastes stale. "I don't think it would be a safety problem, but more of a quality issue," says
    Michael P. Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "We've had
    some water that tasted like stale milk."

    For that reason, some big grocery chains say they won't let old water sit on their shelves.
    Albertsons Inc., which operates 2,300 stores across the country, says it sends water that is past
    its stated expiration date back to the manufacturer.

    The type of bottle used can also be a factor in the taste. The cheaper kind of translucent plastic
    used for milk jugs and some gallon containers of water can eventually leach a plastic tinge into the
    water. (Most bottled water, however, is packaged in a higher grade of plastic that is much more
    resistant to leaching.)

    As for the expiration dates on bottled water, a renaming may be in order. The expiration date on the
    bottles of Dasani water, for instance, "isn't really an expiration date," says Ms. McDermott, of Coca-
    Cola. "It is more of an optimal taste date."

    A Bottled-Water Lexicon

    Labels sport all sorts of vague terms that can make it difficult to figure out what you're drinking.
    Below, a guide to some of the more popular varieties:

    Mineral water: Unlike some waters, this contains a minimum amount of dissolved minerals and other
    elements. Water is derived from a protected underground source.

    Spring water: Retrieved from a natural spring. With the exception of fluoride, no minerals are
    allowed to be added.

    Artesian water: From a well that taps an aquifer, an underground layer of earth that contains water.

    Purified water: Water has undergone a process to remove minerals, metals and other substances. The
    source is usually tap or spring water.

    Drinking water: General term means the water is intended for people to drink -- but the term doesn't
    tell you anything about where it's from or how it's been processed.

    Sources: FDA, International Bottled Water Association

    Updated February 11, 2004 4:29 a.m.

    Wall Street Journal
    ---

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