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FSAI Publishes Bottled Water Report

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) today published its report on the safety and quality of bottled water on the Irish market. The report involved analysing 962 water samples taken from a range of retail premises throughout the country by Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) between September and December 2007 inclusive. A number of non-compliances were found and at the time were corrected immediately, with a number of bottled waters withdrawn from the market and corrective actions taken by the industry.

The aim of this study was to investigate compliance of bottled waters on retail sale in the Republic of Ireland against the microbiological criteria laid down in appropriate EU regulations. It is a summary report of official activity on the ground over a specific period of time bringing together all the data and sampling from EHOs around the country. It reviews actions taken in the past and provides an overview of the findings identified. The three types of bottled waters defined in the legislation were sampled - natural mineral water, spring water and other waters.

Dr John O’Brien, CEO, FSAI states that whilst the findings did not signify a risk to public health, any breach of the hygiene criteria is unacceptable. "Those products confirmed positive for E. coli, necessitated urgent action which included product withdrawals as appropriate. Corrective actions are taken immediately. We do not wait until a report is compiled – if products are found that are not compliant with the food safety legislation, then immediate action is taken. If there was non compliance by the companies involved and reticence to take action, this would have triggered the use of enforcement powers and legal action by the FSAI".

EHOs investigated non-conformances and took appropriate follow-up action with manufacturers and distributors regarding individual unsatisfactory results. Typical follow-up actions included product withdrawals by food business operators, investigations by EHOs at bottling plants, re-sampling and verification of results as well as bottling plant voluntary closure and corrective actions.

Under EU and national legislation, the FSAI has powers in relation to enforcement and naming food businesses where there is a public health risk. These actions are based on scientific evaluation of the possible risks to public health. In this case, the FSAI is precluded from naming the companies/manufacturers involved due to the fact that any irregularities found were assessed as not posing a risk to public health and appropriate remedial action was taken, and thus no enforcement action was necessary.

The main findings of the report are:

  • 1.0% (10/960) of samples contained Escherichia coli, the primary indicator of faecal contamination in water and 0.2% (2/955) of samples contained enterococci, also an indicator of faecal contamination. The numbers of these indicator organisms in samples were low and did not signify a risk to public health. Nevertheless, these samples were considered to be unfit for human consumption and appropriate action was taken in each case. This included product withdrawal, re-sampling and re-testing, where appropriate, and voluntary plant closure for sanitation and hygiene improvements.
  • 0.8% (8/955) of samples contained Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The organism is commonly found in water, soil and faeces and is capable of growth in low nutrient aquatic environments. It is an opportunistic pathogen that rarely causes illness in healthy individuals but may be associated with hospital acquired infections.
  • 6.3% (60/960) of samples contained coliforms whose presence is an indication of possible faecal contamination and warrants further investigation. The presence of coliforms raises concerns regarding the standards of hygiene of the source or in the bottling process.
  • 7.2% (69/952) of samples analysed for the four parameters (i.e. coliforms, E. coli, enterococci and P. aeruginosa) were found to not meet legal standards or were unsatisfactory compared to guideline criteria.

While the numbers of E. coli and coliform positive samples appeared to be higher in domestically bottled products and the levels of enterococci and Pseudomonas aeruginosa positive samples appeared to be higher in imported products, there was no evidence of a difference in quality or safety between domestically produced and imported products.

The FSAI carries out a number of microbiological studies each year and these provide a summary analysis of a particular product which assists evaluate risk and thus targeting resources for more detailed specific sampling if required. These surveys are a part of the FSAI’s proactive monitoring activities. In effect, this type of survey provides a snapshot of the status of a product on the market at specific time.

The legal responsibility for placing safe food and drink on the market lies with producers and the FSAI monitors and samples for compliance routinely. Approximately 18,000 samples of food and bottled water products are randomly sampled each year by EHOs operating under service contract to the FSAI. Laboratories throughout the country in turn carry out in excess of 88,000 tests on the samples.

See full report

Note to editors:

Timescale of Report Publication

The timescale for the production of this report on the survey is in line with other survey reports – national samples were gathered over a four month period (in this case Sept-Dec 07); laboratory tests carried out and data collated up to five months later – report drafted and published autumn/winter 2008. Like other reports on activities published retrospectively, such as annual reports and scientific reports, it is necessary to await verification of raw data, completion of statistical analysis and final agreement on the interpretation of results before publication. Necessary enforcement and other action are taken when a problem arises. This is separate from the production of a scientific report.

Recommendations

The report contains five recommendations

Irish bottled water manufacturers should review their good manufacturing practices and food safety management systems to ensure that they produce water which meets the requirements of S.I. No. 225 of 2007.

Manufacturers already alerted through Beverage Council of Ireland (BCI) in liaison meetings with FSAI. FSAI will organise a meeting with all companies in the next few weeks to outline steps to be taken to improve quality and performance against the legislation.

Manufacturers in conjunction with NSAI should review and, if necessary, revise, the National Standard for packaged water (I.S. 432:2005).

NSAI and the industry representative organisation (Beverage Council of Ireland) have agreed to work with FSAI on this project. A meeting to review IS432 is scheduled for 21/22 January 2009.

During the proposed revision of FSAI Code of Practice No. 1, the risk categorisation of bottled water plants should be re-examined.

This work is planned for early 2009 in association with HSE

Retail level sampling of bottled water should periodically be included in routine microbiological surveillance work under official controls.

This should form a routine part of official controls, as is evidenced by the number of samples taken this year.

Manufacturers must take reasonable measures to ensure that bottled water complies with any applicable legislation. Bottled water failing legal microbiological standards should be removed from the market.

This is general advice for manufacturers.