Food Labeling

Lawsuit Shows Muddied Waters over What Counts as 'Spring Water'

A lawsuit alleges Poland Spring Water amounts to "a colossal fraud perpetrated against American consumers."

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bottled water
Valeriya Potapova / Dreamstime

Earlier this month, a group of plaintiffs filed a federal class-action lawsuit against food and beverage maker Nestlé. The 325-page suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, argues Nestlé's Poland Spring Water is not actually spring water but is instead "common groundwater that doesn't meet the [FDA] definition of spring water."

Consequently, the suit claims, Poland Spring Water's marketing amounts to "a colossal fraud perpetrated against American consumers." The suit seeks damages and injunctive relief for the alleged fraud under both federal law and the consumer-protection laws of several states.

The lawsuit comes just as Poland Spring plans to open a new $50 million bottling facility in Maine, where it plans to add 80 new jobs.

The company refutes the claims in this month's lawsuit.

"[T]he claims made in this lawsuit are without merit and an obvious attempt to manipulate the legal system for personal gain," the company says in a statement. "We are highly confident in our legal position and will vigorously defend ourselves against the frivolous claims in this lawsuit."

This isn't the first time Poland Spring has landed in hot water (so to speak) over its marketing claims. The company settled a 2003 class-action lawsuit, filed in state court in Connecticut, that claimed, the New York Times reported at the time, "Nestlé draws its water from a site 30 miles away from the original Poland Spring and often uses ground water and a spring that is near the site of a former garbage dump."

Bottled water sales and marketing are tightly regulated. Though there are myriad rules that apply to bottled water, no rules require a bottled water maker to identify its source.

For example, neither Aquafina (Pepsi) nor Dasani (Coca-Cola) claims to be a "spring water." Both source their water from municipal water supplies. They sell packaged tap water, in other words, and don't claim otherwise.

Fiji, on the other hand, markets its spring water as "spring water." Its spring water comes from springs in Fiji.

When a seller chooses to make claims about its source—such as Fiji and Poland Spring—then they open themselves up both to government scrutiny and lawsuits if those claims are of dubious validity.

FDA rules, for one, state that water may be referred to as "spring water" only if the water is 1) collected at the spring or via "a bore hole tapping the underground formation feeding the spring" and 2) the location of the spring is identified.

Poland Spring indicates online that its waters come from eight springs in Maine. The company admitted in 2013 that about one-third of its spring water came from Poland Spring. Today, Nestlé isn't exactly hiding the ball about its use (or lack thereof) of Poland Spring's eponymous spring. The company's website notes they "no longer use the original Poland Spring source" to bottle their water.

So who's right here: Nestlé, or the people suing them? I don't really have an opinion. As I've written countless times, questions such as whether Nestlé's Poland Spring Water is or is not fraudulent are exactly the sort of matters that are best addressed by courts.

This is part of my belief, firmly rooted in the First Amendment, that food labels should be open "to any and all statements that aren't demonstrably false," as I wrote in a 2012 column. Who should decide the question of falsity? Courts.

That's the ideal outcome for any First Amendment question. But the FDA's involvement in crafting definitions for foods of many sorts—known as "standards of identity"—unfortunately serves to muddy the waters.

Like every standard of identity, the FDA's standard of identity for spring water, which the plaintiffs in the present lawsuit cite in support of their claims, tends to confuse consumers and food makers alike, and can spur litigation where none might otherwise exist.

Remember the lawsuit challenging a Florida standard of identity for skim milk that said a small creamery in the state couldn't label their 100% pure skim milk as "skim milk" because they hadn't added something to the milk? (I remember. I served as an expert in the case on behalf of the creamery.) Recall the Just Mayo lawsuit, which centered around the FDA's idiotic standard of identity for mayonnaise? How about a New York State standard of identity that attempted to force an almond milk maker to call their almond milk by the downright bizarre name "melloream" instead? I discuss all of these examples and more cases of outlandish standards of identity in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable.

Ninety-nine years ago, a long-running publication known as The Youth's Companion provided a fascinating post-mortem of Rose-Quartz Spring, a Poland Spring competitor in Maine that had met its demise after selling spring water that'd been contaminated with dirt and vegetation.

"There is probably no commodity in the world that depends so much on a reputation for purity as spring water," the weekly noted.

That's probably still true today. And while the question 100 years ago may have been whether a spring water was truly pure, the issue today centers more on whether a spring water is truly a spring water.

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  1. Recall the Just Mayo lawsuit, which centered around the FDA’s idiotic standard of identity for mayonnaise?

    That spurious sandwich spread violates the NAP by its very existence.

    Target gets it.

  2. We must have regulated proprietary blends of hydrogen and oxygen!

    1. Here is how to fix it for the Reason scribes: Require a license.

      There you go, easy peasie.

  3. Immigration checkpoints for people fleeing a natural disaster?

    Wow.

    The crap we tolerate.

    1. Wow. Trolling. The crap we tolerate from YOU.

  4. I think product liability and truth in advertising are important tools for consumers to keep products as designed and advertised. Its a great way for consumers to knock out businesses from the market because the companies have committed fraud or violated basic warranties of safety. Basic product fraud statues would keep a level playing field for businesses.

    This keeps much of the government out of the free market like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, FDA, etc. Product liability lawsuits typically go hand-in-hand with injuries caused by products, so this is not just people trying to harass business.

    The truth in advertising does intertwine with the 1st Amendment but fraud is already a crime. I do not think businesses are protected by the constitution as individual people are, so allowing consumers to sue because a company claims something substantially false on its product, is better than huge government agencies wasting taxpayer money to supposedly make products safe.

    Claiming water is simply bottled and purified for convenience is one thing while claiming that this is especially fresh “spring” water when it comes from municipal water sources seems to be fraud.

    1. Fraud itself is a ridiculous crime, only there for governments to abuse. If actual harm was done, as in selling a product which was other than claimed, there’s your crime — theft. If you get herpes or AIDS from a partner who claims to be safe, the disease is the crime. If someone lies about a contract, sells a car as other than advertised, anything — the theft is the crime, or whatever else was taken of value.

      Leaving “fraud” up to courts and juries is just begging for abuse.

      1. That is what you and I described and its been a crime for centuries.
        fraud
        fr?d/
        noun: fraud; plural noun: frauds
        wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain.

        1. That is what you and I described and its been a crime for centuries.

          You’re missing the point. The question is not whether fraud should result in legal action, but who should initiate that legal action. The traditional libertarian point of view is that only injured parties should be able to bring legal action against a perpetrator.

          1. Yes — and fraud which does not result in harm is not criminal. If you lie about how fast your car is, and nothing else happens, that’s fraud but harmless. If someone offers to buy it, and you take them up on it with them believing your lies, they may be idiots, but you cost them money and are the criminal.

          2. Like if I show up at a cookout and the guy-who-was-supposed-to-bring-the-condiment’s bitch bought Hampton Creek’s ersatz “mayo” I’d have grounds to sue?

    2. Poland Spring is not bottling from “municipal sources.”

    3. The idea that spring water is especially “fresh” (what the hell does “fresh” mean in relation to water?) or “pure” is a ridiculous claim itself. Spring water, glacier water, rain water, lake water. It’s all just water and subject to contamination. If the stuff is safe to drink, where it came from is irrelevant except to idiots with more money than sense.

  5. Could also be a law firm lookin

  6. Could also be a law firm lookin

  7. I can’t really get too worked up over bottlers of “premium” water screwing over their customers, if you’re buying the expensive stuff you’re already getting screwed and you’re demonstrably an easy lay.

    1. So we don’t “need” 28 brands of deodorant?

      1. Nobody needs 28 brands of deodorant. If people *want* 28 brands of deodorant, that’s fine and that’s sufficient reason to have it on the market. But if you’re buying Eau d’Ur brand deodorant at 8 bucks an ounce when it’s the exact same thing as the Walgreen’s Stinkaway that sells for 2 bucks, I’m gonna be judgmental about you.

        I work outside a lot and I buy tons of bottled water, I buy the cheapest stuff they’ve got on sale because I’m only interested in staying hydrated. If you’re a water connoisseur and can tell the difference – and are willing to pay extra for the difference – between Fiji water and Dollar General water, hey, knock yourself out, but I’m still going to laugh at you. Same thing if you insist on top-shelf liquor in a mixed drink.

        1. Some bottled water is filtered tap water. Some comes from natural sources and is then treated. To a few with specific health conditions it makes a difference.

          There are folks that laugh at you for not buying a few reusable containers and filling with tap water. If you don’t like chlorine get a Brita/Pur filter.

          1. Some comes from natural sources

            LOL. Where do you think tap water comes from? Unnatural sources?

            To a few with specific health conditions it makes a difference.

            Citations, please.

  8. Damn it. Looking for a pa day. I have drank Poland. I was water.I am sure the ‘injured’ will get coupons and the law firm millions if it succeeds.

  9. You know who else did not really like things named Poland?

    1. Elaine’s boss?

    2. Congress of Vienna?

    3. That guy who went to Russia in the winter?

  10. Anyone paying that much for bottled H2O deserves to be defrauded in the most extreme way possible, as punishment.

  11. Many years ago I worked at an environmental lab that used Poland Spring water as a baseline for contamination. Occasionally, we would find trihalomethanes which could only come from a chlorinated water source. Not exactly spring water.

  12. We have been always in need of the house of fun when ever we want to get the house of fun coins for free.

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