Some big brands accused of selling stinky bottled water, but CFIA says it poses no health risk | CBC News

By Chris Arsenault · CBC News · Posted: Mar 03, 2019 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: March 4

Some of Canada's big brands have sold bottled water that smells like "urine," tastes like "old socks" or reeks of "diarrhea," according to four years' worth of government inspection reports obtained by CBC News.

Dasani, owned by Coca-Cola; Real Canadian natural spring water, owned by Loblaws, one of Canada's largest grocery-store chains; and Refreshe spring water, from the Safeway grocery chain, are just some of the brands whose water has been hit with complaints over foul smells, tastes or unusually high levels of sulphur, the reports said.

Other firms were found to be bottling water in "filthy conditions." Toronto-area operator Canadian Shield Natural Spring Water was pumping water behind an amusement park with no safety testing facilities, bathroom or hand washing station for employees, one of the inspection reports found.

The firm couldn't be reached for comment as the address listed for the company in inspection reports no longer houses a bottled water company.

The problems were documented in nearly 800 pages of Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reports from 2014 until 2018, obtained under the Access to Information Act. 

The inspection reports underscore sporadic problems at bottling facilities, including excess moisture trapped under the caps of bottles; complications related to factory air compressors; and conspicuous levels of sulphur.

However, the CFIA didn't identify any structural health or safety problems in the industry and said the stinky water some consumers had complained about did not pose a danger.

'There were issues' 

"Yes, there were issues, but all of them were resolved," said Elizabeth Griswold, executive director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association, who reviewed the CFIA inspection reports for CBC News.

"Health Canada and the CFIA do a great job ensuring bottled water sold is safe. And this report confirms it."

Of the 24 complaints investigated by CFIA over four years, only two resulted in voluntary recalls related to health and safety issues, Griswold said.

Elizabeth Griswold, executive director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association, says regulators do a good job in ensuring that bottled water is safe for consumers. (Submitted by Elizabeth Griswold)

One concerned Edmonton-based company All 4 Water and came after blue strands of plastic were found in four-litre jugs of Mountain Park water distributed to 17 locations in Alberta in 2016. The CFIA asked for maintenance records from the firm as the problem was linked to its bottle capping machine, but it did not alert the public about the voluntary recall. 

The other recall involved Island Springs Water Company in Prince Edward Island after unacceptable levels of coliform bacteria were detected in its water in 2015, which was sold directly to consumers and not in retail outlets.

The unsold water from the contaminated batch of 100 bottles was dumped, but water already sold was not recalled. The firm pledged to improve its washing facilities.

The CFIA said it has not issued any mandatory recalls for bottled water since 2014 and that health and safety issues at water bottling companies aren't common.

Sylvain Charlebois, a food policy professor at Dalhousie University, said there is "not much difference" between bottled water and tap water from a health and safety perspective. 

"Most municipalities have very strong water systems ... whether bottled water is superior is open for debate. It boils down to the assurance of the brand itself and what kind of assurance you need as a consumer."

Large, popular brands, however, haven't been immune to quality-control issues.

Coca-Cola's Dasani

After receiving a complaint in 2015 from a consumer in Manitoba who purchased a bottle of Dasani water at a local supermarket that smelled like "old socks," CFIA investigators opened five bottles that had come from the same factory in Brampton, Ont.

They agreed the water had an "off odour" that was "very strong."

Dasani bottled water, owned by Coca-Cola, sits on a store shelf. The company was accused of selling water in Manitoba that tasted like 'old socks,' according to inspection reports from the CFIA obtained by CBC News. The firm says its products are safe, and the bad batch was an isolated occurrence. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In its correspondence with the CFIA, the company said it had received four complaints about "moldy/musty odour" in 500 ml Dasani water bottles from that factory over the previous six months.

"Canadians can be confident in the safety and quality of all Coca-Cola products, including Dasani water," company spokesperson Shannon Denny said in written responses to questions about the smell.    

"We concluded that the unusual odour was from additional moisture on the bottles from rinsing prior to being packaged into cases.… Incidents such as this one are isolated," she said.