The European Commission's Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health yesterday voted in favour of a Commission proposal to strengthen the legislation in force on natural mineral waters, a move which could prove expensive for companies but which is ultimately designed to protect consumer health.
The proposal establishes maximum concentrations for a series of substances of natural origin that the Commission fears may pose long term health risks at high concentrations, as well as reinforcing the labelling provisions applicable to natural mineral waters. The new rules on labelling will apply as of 1 January 2004.
David Byrne, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, said: "Production of natural mineral waters was already subject to very strict EU rules guaranteeing a high level of purity and ensuring that they are free from all environmental contamination or pollution.
"However, some substances that are transferred naturally to natural mineral waters during the long process of underground percolation can, in some cases, present a risk to public health in the long term. Limits must therefore be placed on the concentrations of these substances in line with the most recent EU and international scientific findings."
The Commission's proposal focuses on 16 substances, all of which are of natural origin, and sets maximum concentrations for 15 them, including arsenic, barium, fluoride, boron and manganese. It is based on the opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food and WHO recommendations for drinking water and takes into account the most recent Codex Alimentarius international standard on natural mineral waters.
Where a natural mineral water does not comply with the limits laid down by the proposal, it will be required to undergo an authorised separation treatment. Some producers of natural mineral waters will need to invest heavily in treatment processes in order to meet all the limit values, hence the Commission's proposal that they be allowed until 1 January 2006 to bring their product to full compliance. In the case of fluoride and nickel, for which no separation treatment has yet been assessed or authorised at EU level, the deadline is 1 January 2008.
The proposal also establishes conditions for treatment of natural mineral waters and spring waters with ozone-enriched air, based on an opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food. This treatment enables some of the undesirable constituents to be eliminated by oxidation. Specific mention of this treatment will have to be made on the label in order to inform consumers, the Commission said.
Natural mineral waters containing more than 1.5 mg/l of fluoride will also have to mention on the label that the water is not suitable for regular consumption by babies and young children. These groups are particularly sensitive to the adverse effects of high doses of fluorine ingested over a long period of time.
The use of the term 'natural mineral water' on bottled waters is regulated under EU law. In order to be allowed to use this term on its label a product must be microbiologically wholesome water from an underground water table or deposit that has been recognised as a natural mineral water in its country of origin and that complies with all the requirements of the EU directive on natural mineral water.
It can be distinguished from 'spring water' bottled water that complies with some, but not all, of the requirements of the EU directive on natural mineral water and drinking water (for example, ordinary tap water) - although many consumers may well not be aware of what these differences are.
Though the EU legislation in force on natural mineral waters guarantees a high level of purity and ensures that the water is free from all environmental contamination or pollution, it does not provide for any maximum limits for undesirable constituents of natural origin. In contrast, the Directive on drinking water does make such provisions for drinking water and spring water.
None of the major European natural mineral water producers - companies such as France's Danone (Evian, Volvic) and Nestle (Perrier, Vittel) - have as yet commented on the new legislation, or on how much compliance with the new rules is likely to cost.
However, consumer groups are likely to welcome the moves, which will not only ensure that bottled water - one of the major growth segments of the soft drinks industry - becomes even safer, and that the labelling information is made even clearer.