Bottled Water Firm Steamed about Miami-Dade Water Ads
Radio commercials that touted Miami-Dade tap water have landed the county in hot legal water with Nestle.
In the radio ad, a talking faucet extols Miami-Dade's tap water as cheaper, purer and safer than bottled water.
may have sounded innocuous to most listeners, but the 30-second spot
left the nation's largest purveyor of bottled water boiling mad.
Waters North America, which makes nearly $4 billion a year selling
Zephyrhills and other brands, is threatening to sue if the county
doesn't kill commercials the company brands as false advertising.
an attack on the integrity of the company,'' said Nestle spokesman Jim
McClellan. ``It's an attack on the product we produce -- and it's
With the ads ending a five-week run last month
and no plans to revive it, the county considers the legal issues moot.
But John Renfrow, director of the Water and Sewer Department, defended
the county's right to tout its tap water. ''Basically, the message is
that our water is fine,'' he said. ``It's wonderful. It's delicious.
This is just one of many different spots we've done.''
blasted the threat against the state's largest utility -- believed to
be a first -- as a warning shot from an industry worried about slow
sales after years of gushing growth.
''Nestle should be ashamed
for harassing Miami for promoting its own water,'' said Wenonah Hauter,
executive director of Washington-based Food & Water Watch. ``This
is just outrageous. It's just a way to scare off other utilities.''
said Nestle -- which contacted The Miami Herald to publicize its
complaint -- has never challenged utilities hawking tap water as cheap
and safe. But Miami-Dade, he argued, had stepped over the line in
besmirching bottled water.
`LIE TO PEOPLE'
is the first time we have ever seen a municipality attack a product.
They took out paid advertising and spent rate payer dollars to
essentially lie to people.''
The county ads, which cost $100,000
for 1,654 spots on 12 FM radio stations, began airing in August.
Renfrow said they were primarily aimed at educating a large immigrant
population, some from countries lacking reliable potable water systems.
ad, delivered in lame Brooklyn-ese, opens, ''This is your water faucet
speaking. . . .'' It names no brands but questions bottled water
``You think bottled water is purer and safer? You think
it's better? Well, you're wrong. It's just the opposite. Bottled water
is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Tap water is.
That's why you always can be sure Miami-Dade tap water is superior.
Stop wasting your money!''
Two weeks ago, an Atlanta law firm
representing Nestle sent an eight-page letter to Renfrow demanding the
county yank the ''false or misleading'' ads, pledge in writing not to
run them again and supply testing to prove county water ''superior'' to
Nestle products. The next day, Nestle sent a complaint to Florida's
The county didn't respond in detail but told
Nestle it's not re-airing the ads. ''I don't see any legal problems,''
said Henry Gillman, an assistant county attorney.
employs 70 in Miami-Dade, is still pondering legal options. It's also
testing county taps, McClellan said, and initial results exceed federal
standards for fecal coliform, often an indicator of exposure to animal
or human waste.
''When you make a statement and say your water is
better than our water, we want to find out,'' said Kevin Mathews,
director of health and environmental affairs for Nestle, which is based
in Greenwich, Conn.
Joe Doss, president of the International
Bottled Water Association, which represents companies that recorded
$11.7 billion in sales in 2007, called Nestle's demands understandable.
``Quite frankly, we were considering similar action.''
a lot at stake in the Sunshine State. Florida ranks third behind Texas
and California in bottled water sales, gulping more than 575 million
gallons a year. The company also operates two plants in Zephyrhills and
Madison County and can draw about 2.5 million gallons a day from four
Both Doss and McClellan disputed that Nestle's warning
was motivated by a sales drought. Still, after a decade of boom,
bottled water, along with other beverages, is showing signs of slowing,
said Gary Hemphill, managing director of Beverage Marketing Corp. in
New York, which tracks industry sales.
A sagging economy and
rising costs are the big issues, he said, but environmental concerns
also are making a dent. A number of ''green'' groups have mounted
campaigns calling the plastic bottles wasteful, the water expensive and
no healthier than tap. While bottled water is regulated by the Food and
Drug Administration, the industry doesn't have to test as often or for
as many contaminants as utilities do under EPA rules, Hauter said.
''We're pretty comfortable saying that when you're drinking bottled water, you don't know what you're getting,'' she said.
also have fought to block bottlers' operations in Florida, where
companies tap underground springs for minimal fees of a few hundred
dollars a year.
Linda Young, director of the Florida Clean Water
Network, which has opposed state environmental permits for bottlers,
called Nestle's arguments dubious.
''Tap water is superior in
some ways. It's right there in your house,'' she said. ``If these
companies think they're going to come into Florida and threaten
citizens or governments when we give an opinion, that's another reason
to make them leave.''
The industry disputes activists' charges,
saying companies are reducing plastic in bottles. Nestles' Mathews
argues that additional treatment -- including reverse osmosis, ozone
disinfection instead of chlorine and sealed bottles -- delivers a
better, and better tasting, product than tap.
Miami-Dade's water director, wouldn't discuss Nestle's allegations in
detail, saying only, ''Our water meets every requirement for health.''
He added, ``I like their chocolate.''