Natural foods grocery chain Whole Foods introduced its new Starkey Water brand of bottled water at a 2015 investor event, where company executives heralded the product’s purity and healthfulness.
“It naturally flows out of the ground,” said Chief Operating Officer A.C. Gallo about the company’s spring in Council, Idaho, according to a published transcript on its website. “We built, actually, a spring house over it so we can let the water go down to the bottling plant. It’s amazingly pristine water.”
Yet from late 2016 to early 2017, more than 2,000 cases of Starkey Water were recalled after tests by regulators showed an impermissible level of arsenic beyond the federally mandated threshold of 10 parts per billion. A year later, Whole Foods’ internal testing showed results that were under the federal limit but still at levels that a growing body of research and independent experts, including Consumer Reports scientists, say pose health risks if regularly consumed.
Over the past few years, as consumers have worried more about the quality of municipal tap water, bottled water has surged in popularity and is now the nation’s best-selling bottled beverage. But a CR investigation has found that in some cases bottled water on store shelves contains more potentially harmful arsenic than tap water flowing into some homes.
“It makes no sense that consumers can purchase bottled water that is less safe than tap water,” says James Dickerson, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports. “If anything, bottled water—a product for which people pay a premium, often because they assume it’s safer—should be regulated at least as strictly as tap water.”
For this report, CR tracked down and reviewed hundreds of public records and test reports from bottled water brands, and from various federal and state regulators. It found that several popular brands sell bottled water with arsenic levels at or above 3 ppb; current research suggests that amounts above that level are potentially dangerous to drink over extended periods of time. CR believes the federal limit for bottled water should be revised down to 3 ppb from the current federal standard of 10 ppb.
In total, CR identified 11 brands out of more than 130 that either self-reported or, based on tests it commissioned, had detectable amounts of arsenic. Of those, six had levels of 3 ppb or higher. These brands are Starkey (owned by Whole Foods), Peñafiel (owned by Keurig Dr Pepper), Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water, Volvic (owned by Danone), and two regional brands, Crystal Creamery and EartH2O.
As part of its investigation, CR also was able to purchase two brands of imported water—Jermuk from Armenia and Peñafiel from Mexico—that are on an import alert issued by the federal government for previously having arsenic levels above the federal limit of 10 ppb. Such an alert is meant to “prevent potentially violative products from being distributed in the United States,” according to the Food and Drug Administration. Even so, CR easily purchased the two brands in retail stores in two states and on Amazon.
The full report can be read here.