Food Safety and Quality:

Limitations of FDA's Bottled Water Survey and Options for Better Oversight

RCED-92-87: Published: Feb 10, 1992. Publicly Released: Feb 24, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the adequacy of the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) 1990 Bottled Water Survey, focusing on whether the FDA: (1) survey results were representative of the nation's bottled water supply; (2) tests covered all regulated contaminants; and (3) testing for unregulated contaminants was warranted.

GAO found that: (1) FDA did not base the 1990 bottled water survey on a probability sample or use any formal design that considered or estimated the cost of such a survey; (2) the survey did not provide an adequate basis for the FDA statement that bottled water was safe, since FDA only inspected 49 domestic bottled water plants and tested 112 domestic and imported water samples; (3) to control costs, FDA instructed its districts to test the selected samples for only 9 of 31 regulated contaminants; (4) FDA also tested for 11 unregulated contaminants to determine the level of bacteria present and to detect and quantify the level of volatile organic chemicals; and (5) the decision to test for unregulated contaminants was warranted because FDA was considering new standards for those contaminants, which included benzene, which received much media attention, and the cost of performing those tests was only about 4 percent of the total survey cost of $850,000.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FDA believes that requiring laboratory certification would be costly and not worth the benefits. GAO believes that certification is needed for improved oversight and need not be costly. However, congressional interest in new bottled water legislation is waning. FDA indicates no interest in acting on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should improve FDA oversight of bottled water by reconsidering his decision regarding the prior GAO recommendations that relate to the use of certified laboratories and the retention of test records for a longer period of time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FDA supports more sharing of information among FDA, BWA, and NSF but has not concurred with establishing a program to pilot-test using third-party inspection results. Congressional interest in new bottled water legislation is waning. FDA has no interest in acting on the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner, FDA, should develop a program, in cooperation with the International Bottled Water Association (BWA) and the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), to test the feasibility of using third-party inspection results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Food and Drug Administration


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