Consumers in the US have filed a class action lawsuit against the Nestlé Waters North America unit of Swiss food and drink giant Nestlé, claiming that the company has fraudulently advertised its top-selling Poland Spring brand bottled water.
The suit alleges that Nestlé uses heavily treated water taken from common ground water sources when bottling Poland Spring, but then labels the bottles as spring water and charges consumers a premium price for supposedly higher quality water.
The suit, which has been filed in the Connecticut Superior Court, argues that Nestlé's claims of Poland Spring as being 'found deep in the woods of Maine' and 'exceptionally well protected by nature' intentionally deceive customers about the true nature of the sources, most of which, the suit claims, are surrounded by car parks or potentially dangerous contamination.
Similar suits were also filed in New Jersey Superior Court and Massachusetts Superior Court.
The suit also alleges that Nestlé falsely advertises Poland Spring as 'naturally purified' or 'spring water' since the water does not meet the scientific definition for spring water.
"We believe this is nothing more than a bottled-water bait and switch," said Tom Sobol, the attorney representing consumers. "Consumers purchase Poland Spring thinking they are getting a higher quality natural spring water, but our suit will show that Poland Spring is neither natural nor spring water, and in fact comes from sources of a lesser quality than some tap water."
But Nestlé Waters North America has denied the allegations. "We want to assure our customers that Poland Spring is pure natural spring water with an excellent track record for quality. Every bottle of Poland Spring clearly identifies the location of its sources in Maine, and the water is regulated by the US Food & Drug Administration and meets all federal and state regulations governing product quality and labelling, spring water collection, and manufacturing practices."
Nestlé continued: "We are appalled by the false and misleading allegations contained in the legal actions filed today. It is a shame that the legal system tolerates this type of behaviour. All of us at Poland Spring have worked very hard to ensure the quality of our product and earn our customers' trust. On behalf of our customers and employees, we intend to vigorously defend ourselves against the charges in this suit."
The plaintiffs in the case claim that the original Poland Spring, once the site of a small bottling company, has not flowed since 1967, and that the actual sources of Poland Spring water, located up to 30 miles away from the original Poland Spring, depend on man-made production wells drawing more than 6 million gallons of water a year, none of which is drawn from the original Poland Spring.
The suit states that as Nestlé expanded production of Poland Spring water, the company began digging supply wells and using nearby groundwater, much of which had high potential for contamination.
"These actions put consumers at a tremendous risk; we believe Nestlé abrogated its responsibility to be honest and truthful about its products' origin," Sobol continued."
He also claimed that Nestlé has been forced to treat all the water produced at Poland Spring after a number of earlier complaints of bacterial contamination.
The suit seeks to ban Nestlé from promoting or advertising products as spring water if they do not meet scientific definitions, and a restitution amount to the general public.
There is no law against selling 'normal' water in bottles in the US - Coca-Cola's Dasani brand and PepsiCo's Aquafina brand are both purified waters with added minerals - but what is illegal is to sell these brands as if they were natural spring or mineral waters.
If the case against Nestlé is successful, it will clearly have a major impact on sales of Poland Spring, which is not only sold in bottles but also has a substantial home and office delivery business as well. Furthermore, it would do little for the reputation of the company behind such big name mineral water brands as Perrier and Vittel.