If you buy a bottle of Zephyrhills Brand Natural Spring Water, it may not come from Zephyrhills.
It may not even be "natural spring water," it may be well water.
Better read the fine print.
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People identify with their waters.
In the Tampa Bay area, it's Zephyrhills and the spring in Pasco County. Northeasterners love their Poland Springs water, the product of a retreating glacier in Maine some 20,000 years ago. In the mid-Atlantic region, Deer Park of Oakland, Md., was king. It was from a boiling spring at a vacation resort and spa in the Appalachian Mountains of Maryland, a spa visited by four U.S. presidents, from James Garfield to William Taft.
Out west, it was Arrowhead from the San Bernardino mountains. The Midwest gave us Ice Mountain and Ozarka.
But over the years, Nestle Waters North America, the largest water-bottling corporation in the country, has bought them all.
The subsidiary of the Swiss company that brought us the Crunch bar and Quik chocolate milk says consumers look for a brand based on its quality. That's what the company delivers with water products.
"What you find, people are loyal to the taste and the brand," said Jim McClellan, a spokesman for Nestle Waters. "They associate a brand with a taste, not necessarily a location. Most people don't know where Deer Park is located."
Taking advantage of the power of its brands, Nestle has remade the bottled water industry. In some cases, the source of the water no longer fits the name on the bottle.
Zephyrhills water might come from the spring in Pasco, but it also can come from Madison or Washington counties in North Florida. Ozarka once bubbled up from a spring in Arkansas; now it's drawn from Texas. Arrowhead is no longer just from the spring in the San Bernardino Mountains, it's drawn from 13 different sources, including a Canadian spring.
Deer Park? So much for the spa and the boiling spring in the mountains of Maryland: Now it's drawn from Madison and Liberty counties in Florida, and from several locations in Pennsylvania.
In small print on its bottles, Nestle discloses where the water comes from — sometimes. Gallon containers of Deer Park Natural Spring Water sold in the Tampa Bay area, for instance, do not identify the source. A spokesman said this week that the company will change its labels to identify the sources on all their bottles.
But for now, a shopper at a Publix in St. Petersburg can find gallon containers of Deer Park and Zephyrhills natural spring waters on the same shelf. The Deer Park brand goes for $1.29 a gallon, the Zephyrhills for $1.19. What the shopper can't tell is that the Deer Park water was bottled in Pasco County, at the same plant — and with the identical water — as the Zephyrhills brand.
People from mid-Atlantic states who have relocated to Florida and associate Deer Park with exceptional spring water snap it up. It feels good, even if it's the same as the Zephyrhills water — which, then again, sometimes does not come from Zephyrhills.
"Our objective is they're not going to know the difference," said Rob Fisher, operations director for Nestle's Southeast region.
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You would expect that a bottle labeled "natural spring water'' came from a spring. Maybe it did. But it could have been drawn from a well.
Nestle and other large bottling corporations take advantage of a Food and Drug Administration labeling loophole that allows bottlers to classify well water as natural spring water.
This happens at Nestle's Madison County bottling plant, just south of the Georgia-Florida border.
The company bottles some of its Zephyrhills Spring Water brand and much of its Deer Park Spring Water brand there. But the water does not come from the Madison Blue Spring; it comes from two wells dug into the aquifer near the spring.
In November 1995, the FDA began allowing bottlers to call well water "spring water" if the source has the same "composition and quality" as the spring.
What Nestle bottles at its Madison County plant "is well water," said Jon Dinges, a resource management director for the local water district.
McClellan, the Nestle spokesman, says the public should be assured the water from the well is the same water in the spring itself.
"It has to have the same mineral content," McClellan said. "We do that without impacting the spring itself."
Last year, PepsiCo came under fire for its Aquafina brand because the label featured mountains, suggesting the water came from a mountain spring. It's actually processed tap water.
If it's misleading for Pepsi to use mountains on its Aquafina label, is it misleading for Nestle to label well water as spring water?
Jim Stevenson, chairman of the Florida springs task force, says it doesn't matter. He said water in the spring and water from a source that feeds that spring are identical.
Call it natural spring water. Call it artesian water. Call it well water.
"Water has a number of names," Stevenson said. "If it's coming out of a spring basin, it's essentially spring water."
The more important issue, he says, is whether chemicals and other contaminants from agriculture and manufacturing plants are making their way into the water.
"The quality of that water is determined by the land uses at that particular spring basin," Stevenson said. "If there is a city near that spring, the pollutants from that city will affect that water. If the entire spring is in a natural forest, there are virtually no pollutants."
But he questioned the idea of using different springs in different states for a single brand.
Would the water have the same characteristics?
"I'm no chemist, but probably not," Stevenson said. "Each aquifer will have a different composition."
Smaller bottling companies call it all deception, including labeling well water as "natural spring water."
"The fact the FDA allows large bottling companies to bottle borehole water (with certain requirements), and call it natural spring water doesn't make it right in our view,'' according to a statement from the Walden Spring Water Co., which operates a bottling plant in Wheelock, Vt.
"I believe there should be truth in labeling,'' said John Ranciato, Walden Springs' manager.
Ranciato says water that passes through a pipe stuck in the aquifer does not have the same taste as water that picks up minerals from the ground as it bubbles to the surface of a spring.
"You're definitely getting more natural taste from spring water," he said.
Nestle trades in countless brands, from chocolate bars to Stouffer's to Purina dog food. Ranciato says that, given the company's influence, no change should be expected. Nestle's political strength runs as deep as the wells from which it draws its bottled water.
"If they stopped delivering for one day, people would really feel the grip they have on our country," Ranciato said.
Kevin Keller, a professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, said he believes most consumers are unaware of the different sources for Nestle's water products, even if it is on the label.
As the public is made aware of the issue, he said consumers might have a problem with what the FDA is allowing and with Nestle's decisions for branding and sources for water.
"It's just the fact that it is not literally true," Keller said. "I am always uncomfortable not being completely honest with consumers. It questions your motives and credibility."
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.