Bottled water firms turn to scare tactics

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AIDES working for bottled water producers are planning to use scare tactics to protect falling sales in Scotland by attacking the quality of tap water supplied to consumers.

The tactics are outlined in a memorandum drawn up by a public relations company employed by the industry to be used in case "the media turns hostile to our cause".

It suggests using data on contamination of public water supplies with potentially-harmful bugs, such as E Coli and cryptosporidium, to highlight the merits of drinking bottled water. Sales of bottled water have fallen nationally over the last year because of the effects of the recession on disposable incomes.

The memo, obtained by Scotland on Sunday, was written by a London PR company working for the Natural Hydration Council, an industry lobby group funded by three major bottled water companies. They include Nestl, which markets Vittel and Perrier; Danone, which produces Volvic and Evian; and Perthshire-based Highland Spring.

It was sent to an Edinburgh-based communications company, 3X1 – which is paid by the industry to lobby on its behalf – to be deployed on the same day as the annual publication of Scotland's Drinking Water Quality Regulator, last Thursday.

The regulator's report concluded that the quality of Scottish drinking water remains "extremely high" with 99.75 per cent of supplies meeting safety standards. It adds that two tap samples in Scotland contained E Coli in 2008, an improvement on 2007 when five failures were recorded.

This prompted Julie McGarvey, of 3X1 to write to her colleague James Laird, at Epicurus Communications in London: "Clock the E Coli data. Good to keep up our sleeve."

Laird wrote back that he had already written a memo, based on an analysis of reports by the Drinking Water Inspectorate in England, that had "observations" that might be useful "should the media turn hostile towards our cause."

He adds that the report offers "potential sound-bite notes that could be used for NHC un-attributable media briefings." "Unattributable briefings" is lobby group shorthand for information passed to journalists on condition they do not name their source.

On drinking water compliance, the memo notes that in England and Wales in 2008, 99.96 per cent of public drinking water supplies met the required government standards.

But it adds that, extrapolated nationally to include Scotland, 4.5 billion litres failed the DWI water standards.

The memo continues that there is a "compliance" gap between the best and worst companies – "hardly a 'tap water lottery' but proof that standards vary and there is no consumer choice to switch to better providers."

On water treatment, it notes that at treatment works last year the DWI found the E-Coli bacterium on seven occasions and 78 times found coliform bacteria.

On tap water quality, the memo points out that more than 1 per cent of UK households still have supplies with lead levels that do not meet standards required by 2013.

It notes that "there were over 70,000 consumer complaints about 'dirty water' last year".

Under the category "Exceptional incidents," the memo says the DWI recorded 144 water quality incidents last year, up from 129 in 2007 and 98 in 2006.

"The DWI particularly has seen evidence of repeat-offenders/incidences and regards this as a worrying trend," it says. There had also been high profile incidents of overdosing with fluoride, and contamination with cryptosporidium and slug pellets.

The memo concludes: "All these high-profile incidents provide opportunities to bridge (during briefings] to the merits of bottled water."

3X1's Julie McGarvey said

"We keep an eye on the water industry, This (the memo] was for my own knowledge when I am asked. We don't attack tap water, we never have. We don't want to denigrate tap water."

James Laird described himself as a "consultant" to the NHC. He said: "It's (the memo] a three-page summary of a very long document, dealing with reports that have been in the public domain."

Asked whether the examples of problems in the public water supply would be communicated to journalists, he replied: "Absolutely not. The NHC supports the consumption of all water, whether bottled or tap. There is no intent, desire or mandate to criticise tap water on behalf of the NHC."

Colin McLaren, Scotland's Drinking Water Quality Regulator, declined to comment on the contents of the memo but added: "Scotland's public drinking water supplies are safe and of very high quality. This was confirmed by over 340,000 tests in 2008. Failures of the standards are extremely rare, and when they do occur are acted upon quickly to ensure they pose no danger to health."