Protect Your Sources

More than 60 different brands of bottled water are sold across Taiwan at a wide range of prices. Expensive Evian may seem to be higher quality than boiled tap water, but then again, you boiled that water yourself. What is the price of healthy and safe hydration? By Jeniffer K. Lin

It's hot. You're thirsty. You reach for that cool, refreshing bottle of clear, mountain spring water, bottled at the source. With a swift twist of your wrist, you unlock the cap separating your parched throat from pure, liquid refreshment. Suddenly, something catches your eye. A glimpse of something floating weightlessly within the bottle. It's still hot. You're still thirsty. But... is that a cockroach wing in there?

Bottled water is a big business in hot, humid, and fountain-less Taiwan. All told, Taiwanese drink up NT$3.67 billion-worth of the stuff every year - 15.14 liters per person and growing. As a beverage, bottled water often seems the healthiest drink choice, helping consumers avoid added sugar, preservatives, artificial flavors, and caffeine. As a thirst quencher, bottled water yields convenience in the most natural form of hydration. And when given an alternative to tap water, many in Taiwan will choose bottled water either for its taste or for the expectation that it will be cleaner and healthier to drink than what comes out of the faucet. Mostly, bottled water delivers a sense of security, simply by virtue of being packaged.

But not when it comes with unwanted "extras." The problem is, bottled water is not always perfectly pristine, a problem made pointedly clear by the ROC Consumers' Foundation. A report published in the foundation's [italic]Consumer Reports magazine in 1998 found that bottled water is seldom simply H20. Heavy metals, microorganisms, mold, bacteria, and the occasional insect or hair are just some of the impurities that were found in bottled water. To be sure your next bottle of store-bought water is free of surprises, visible or not, make sure you fill up on your water facts and consumer rights.

The Source of the Problem

The bottled water sold in your neighborhood 7-Eleven comes from one of a variety of sources ranging from faraway melted glaciers and mountain springs to local underground wells and municipal tap water treatment plants. Knowing the source is the first step toward bottled water quality control. In Taiwan, local water sources are licensed and monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency. If the source is deemed safe according to EPA standards, water taken from that source may be bottled or put into drums to be sold as drinking water. Licensed sources are tested every three to six months to ensure against contamination. "To control the source is very important," says Chen Shu-Kong, director of the Bureau of Food Sanitation under the Department of Health. "If you only control the [retail] market, it is too late."

One potential problem at this stage, says the Executive Yuan's Consumer Protection Commission (CPC), is false licensing. In central and southern Taiwan, water is often delivered in drums and sold to the general public from pumps, much like gasoline at gas stations. The CPC says suppliers sometimes sell water drawn from unauthorized wells, putting uninformed consumers at risk. "People will send a sample of boiled or bottled water to be approved. Then when the health department says that water is safe for drinking, they use that certification to pump and sell their [uncertified] well water," says CPC Consumer Ombudsman Wang Te-Ming.

After drinking water leaves its source, local county or city health bureaus are responsible for overseeing its purity as it winds its way through the distribution and retail system. This includes extraction of the water, filtration, sterilization, bottling, retail inventory, and all transportation in between. Water safety is judged according to the Food Sanitation Governance Law and the Chinese National Standard (CNS) set by the Ministry of Economic Affairs' Bureau of Metrology, Standards, and Inspection. The ministry also sets labeling requirements. Two types of drinking water are recognized by the Taiwan government: packaged mineral water and bottled water. Both are required to specify the location and type of water source on the label.

Under current regulations, at least one government agency can be held accountable for any problems found in locally sold drinking water. "If all you want is a safe product, then the current regulation is enough," says Chen Shu-Kong of the Bureau of Food Sanitation, Department of Health. But the ROC Consumers' Foundation disagrees.

Although there have been no documented cases of poisoning or sickness resulting from bottled water consumption in Taiwan, Consumer Foundation representatives say bottled water is tested only once a year at most-not often enough to protect consumers. "Tests on bottled water are not done every year. There are too many foods," says CPC Senior Assistant Liu Chin-Fang, further describing the health bureaus' "maybe this year, maybe next year" approach to testing. The bureaus are allowed great flexibility in how they test bottled waters. They can test at the bottling plants - from the vat or the bottle, or conduct tests from bottles directly off the store shelves - to make sure they meet CNS requirements. And although it is recommended that tests be done yearly, there is also no regular testing schedule. This, coupled with a high number of consumer complaints on bottled water quality, prompted the ROC Consumers' Foundation to investigate the issue back in 1998.

The study analyzed 33 brands of packaged mineral water and 33 brands of bottled water, both domestic and imported, sold locally. Their findings revealed that roughly 40 percent of packaged mineral water and 20 percent of bottled water exceeded the government allotment of microorganisms. These included Taisun Pure Water, Volvic Natural Mineral Water, and Young Energy Source (Y.E.S.) Mineral Water, three of the top-selling brands in Taiwan, according to the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA).

The [italic] Consumer Reports article states that as long as the microorganisms do not include harmful bacteria, exceeding the government standard in quantity will not hurt consumers' health. However, a higher incidence of microorganisms does carry a higher probability of containing harmful bacteria, the study states. The report did not find any occurrence of such harmful, or pathogenic, bacteria as E. coli, Coliform, Fecal Streptococcus aureus, in quantities exceeding government standards.

Other problems found in bottled water usually occur during the bottling process. "We get complaints about things floating in the water," says Wang of the CPC. "But there's never actually been a case of sickness." Insects can crawl into the bottles before they are filled, or more commonly, mold forms in the bottle because a faulty seal on the cap allowed air to get in. "We test only for pathogenic problems," says the Chen of the Department of Health, "if the water contains mold, it is an aesthetic problem, not a safety problem."

Dollars and Scents

Many of locally sold bottled waters are actually bottled tap water, and the label is required to state so in compliance with the CNS. Most consumers assume there is a vast difference between the water from their kitchen tap and the bottles at Family Mart. But, if the water in the bottle comes from a tap water source, then the two share the same fundamental properties.

That is not to say that drinking tap and bottled tap are the same thing. "According to the water company, tap water is drinkable, but water tanks in the home may not be cleaned annually, and the distribution system may be old," says Chen. That is why the DOH suggests boiling your home tap water before you drink it. Most Taiwan residents now do anyway, out of habit.

Tap water for bottling is taken from the source, treated with heat or filtration to remove pathogenic organisms and any unfavorable smells. Then, it is bottled, sealed, and transported to store shelves, but not before picking up a hefty price tag. Savvy - and thrifty - consumers may ask, why pay for bottled tap water? "It is convenient," says Chen. "Taiwan people drink bottled water only to resolve their thirst, not to enjoy a special taste." Chen explains that waters have different tastes in accordance with their mineral content. For example, you may notice French mineral waters have a distinct taste, but also carry a much higher price. "Most [Taiwan bottled waters] don't have the mineral taste," he says.

Chen's theory holds true when tested against market research reports from the IBWA and the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service. Imported unsweetened bottled water accounted for less than 4 percent of Taiwan's bottled water market in 1999. The island's best selling bottled waters are locally produced, and also the lowest priced on the market. Y.E.S. Mineral Water dominates with 40 percent of the market, retailing for a manufacturer's suggest price of NT$15 per 550-milliliter bottle. The second runner up, Uni-President's H20 Water, actually gives you more for your money at NT$16 per 600-milliliter bottle, but because of the higher price tag occupies only 16 percent of the market. Taisun Pure Water, the number three seller, holds 10 percent of the market and is sold for NT$18 per 600-milliliter bottle.

As much as consumers prefer the taste and the convenience of bottled water to tap water, juices, or sodas, there has been an increasing discontent over pricing. By volume, bottled water costs much more than rice wine, and even gasoline. CPC Consumer Ombudsman Wang Te-Ming says price, and not quality, is the most frequent complaint the commission receives.

How to Choose Your Water

When buying a bottle of water, use your eyes as your guide. First, be sure there are no visible impurities floating inside the bottle. Then read the label carefully. See that there is a clearly indicated source type and source location. Check for a production and expiration date. Finally, look at the bottle. Check that the cap is secured, the bottle has not been crushed, cracked, or broken, and that the bottle is made from PET plastic, not PVC. The PET symbol can usually be found on the bottom of the bottle; look for a triangle with a "1" in the middle and "PET" beneath. PET plastic has been found to be the best bottling material for preventing damage and maintaining a good seal.

Mineral Water vs. "Pure" Water

Are you a mineral or "pure" water drinker? "Pure" water often means distilled, but may also just mean filtered or treated. There are no set rules on naming water types; the ROC government has only criterion separating "mineral water" and "bottled drinking water." While purity may seem ideal when talking about water, minerals can have a health advantage. The human body naturally contains and needs to replenish minerals - calcium fortifies bones and magnesium can help fight heart disease. But don't go overboard. An overabundance of minerals can be unhealthy. Too much calcium can build up and cause kidney and bladder stones, and too much sodium leads to high blood pressure.


Featured AmCham Members