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 hodgepodge 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.)
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.
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.
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.)
A Bottled-Water Lexicon
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:
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.
Unexpected Things in Drinking Water
(Dec. 8) -- Charles Duhigg of The New York Times today
delivered the latest unsettling news about the nation's
water supply: It's not as clean as you might think. An
analysis of federal data from the last five years revealed
that more than 20 percent of the nation's water-treatment
systems have broken provisions of the Safe Drinking Water
Act, the standards enforced by the Environmental Protection
Agency. The result? As many as 19 million Americans are
sickened each year.