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Food inspectors leave some problems with bottled water unreported

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency often finds problems with bottled water, but doesn't tell the public about them.

Canada's federal food watchdog issued 29 recall notices for bottled water products between 2000 and early 2008, citing deficiencies such as contamination by bacteria, moulds, glass chips and trace amounts of arsenic.

Of the recalls, affecting 49 different products, it issued a public warning in only seven cases, two of which came after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made public its recall orders.

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The total number of recalls was obtained through an Access to Information Act request by the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based public-interest group that wants to curb bottled water use. The group compared the recall notices on the government list with those made public on the agency's website, and found no record for most of them.

The institute contends the CFIA, by not revealing the extent of its recall activity, is giving consumers a misleading impression about the quality of bottled water.

"Recalls are happening and coupled with that they're not widely publicized," said Joe Cressy, a spokesman for the institute.

The "occasional Web entry is not showing the full scale" of the problems in bottled water, he said.

The group sought help from the CFIA to determine whether there were online recall orders it missed, but wasn't given a response pointing to any.

The agency defended its disclosure practices, saying it conducts health-risk assessments and issues public recall notices based on the degree of danger an item poses.

CFIA food safety and recall specialist Garfield Balsom said in an interview that other countries follow the same approach and don't automatically issue notices because consumers would be soon be overwhelmed by publicity over recalls, most of which would pose low risks. Sometimes products deemed dangerous enough to recall are still in warehouses and not on store shelves, for example. "There are downsides to publicizing everything," he said.

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Although bottled water has an image as being clean and pristine, the CFIA's list of 29 recalls indicates most of the products yanked from the market were for microbiological contamination, quality problems termed "pathogenic" in the access document.

The findings included that of Bacillus cereus , which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and pain, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa , a bacteria that is a potential risk to those who are ill or have weakened immune systems. Most of the recalls were at smaller water bottlers, although the Perrier Group of Canada, a major company in the industry, had one in 2002 for bacteriological contamination for which the institute was unable to locate any public notification by the CFIA.

Perrier, now known as Nestle Waters Canada, said it voluntarily undertook the recall of the bottled water, which received limited distribution in Western Canada. "The actual number of affected bottles was very small," the company said in a statement, adding that it removed the products "as a precaution."

According to Mr. Balsom, there are no hard-and-fast rules on what requires public notification. "There is nothing indicating what is to be made public or what's not," he said. He admitted that under the current disclosure system there is a possibility that consumers might unknowingly use products for which recalls have taken place.

The agency has an internal hazard ranking system, known as class one, class two and class three, for products that respectively pose high, moderate and low risk.

Mr. Balsom said class one products have a serious health danger and would generally have the recall notices made public. There were no class one recalls for bottled water.

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But the access records show that there was no consistency in the agency's approach. There were cases of the same bacteria and same hazard ratings being treated differently, with some having public recalls and others not. One of the cases in which the FDA was involved - a spearmint flavoured water sold in 2007 and contaminated by bacteria - was deemed a low risk class three hazard by the CFIA, but it was issued a public recall notice.

The access records indicate that the agency made public recalls in 2000, 2001 and then resumed again in 2007, when the FDA also issued its notices.

The Polaris Institute is issuing the access findings in a report on bottled water being released Wednesday.

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About the Author
Investment Reporter

Martin Mittelstaedt has had a varied reporting career at the Globe and Mail, covering politics, the environment and business. He opened up the Globe's New York bureau for the Report on Business, and has also been on the banking and capital markets beats. He's written extensively on investing themes. More

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