China’s bottled water problem

Guest post by chinadialogue intern Paul Carsten.

Concerns about food and drink safety in China show no signs of dying down. In the wake of a series of cases involving lax monitoring and public health problems, the Ministry of Health issued a national warning, pointing out that schools and construction sites were particularly high risk areas. Meanwhile, one area the Chinese press has paid great attention to is bottled water. 

During August, worm eggs were reportedly found in bottles of Nongfu Spring water in a shop in Beijing and, later that month, safety checks found excessive levels of aerobic bacteria and coli groups in 31 brands of bottled water. Sales were immediately halted by authorities.

In an interview with China Daily, Li Fuxing – director of the Beijing Institute of Public Health and Drinking Water – admitted that regulation and checks for water are difficult and costly to implement. Official efforts are usually only conducted when water production is started, and follow-up checks are rare. The production and supply chains also offer plenty of opportunity for contamination or introduction of counterfeits, with equipment such as piping often dozens of years old and rarely cleaned. This month, water produced by six companies was found to have high levels of bacteria, bromate and strontium. Bromate is a possible carcinogen and, in certain forms, strontium can lead to diseases of the bone such as bone cancer.

Counterfeit water and bottles, which may not be made of the food-grade polycarbonate required by safety standards, can be easily switched with the original product by distributors, many of whom are independent from the production companies. A salesman at the largest producer of polycarbonate water barrels in the market claimed that only 40% of these barrels met the necessary standards.

Efforts have been made to deter counterfeiters by using bottles marked with special patterns, but again these are costly and can only be produced by the largest bottled-water companies. In an industry where customers spend over 30 billion yuan annually and regulation is lax, it may be difficult to convince companies to invest in frequent tests and safety checks for their supply and production chains.

Image courtesy of bcfoto70.