In Belize one of the fastest growing and most unregulated businesses happens to be good old H2O, or as we commonly know it: WATER! The Bottled Water industry has grown rapidly over the last decade and without any standards or regulations in place to protect the consumer and safely guide this multimillion dollar industry, the Bureau of Standards along with the Ministry of Health are fast tracking towards meeting the standards and good regulatory practices of the Caricom region and the World Health Organization. And so today those who have a stake in the industry gathered at the Best Western Hotel to participate in the development and shaping of those new proposed regulations that are intended to protect consumers from contaminated packaged water. Seven News was there today and I had an opportunity to speak with some of the stakeholders.
There are more Belizeans than ever, young and old who have developed an insatiable appetite for fresh, clean water to drink. This market driven reality has spurred one of the fastest growing industries in Belize.
Nolan Michael, Plant Manager, Cystal Bottling
"People in this day and age have become more health and safety conscious knowing the hazards that are out there. I think that has primarily driven the market for bottled water."
The bottled water business is a profitable and growing industry with low start-up costs, and that might be why more than three dozen bottlers have mushroomed across Belize.
There are many choices but the problem for the consumer is there are no standards in place to ensure the water they buy is safe.
Jose Trejo, Director Belize Bureau of Standards
"We have a difficulty with products, locally produced products are not having proper labelling. That is part of the standard. The standard itself calls for certain testing and samples to be done with regularity. This is where the regularity agencies like the Ministry of Health come into play. This would mean then that random testing has to be done for the products that are on the market at this present time. One of the things that we have to do both as the Bureau and the Ministry of Health is to educate the consumer about the kind of work that we do and the kind of testing that we do so that they readily identify certain products that are actually meeting the standard."
Studies have shown from samples taken of some bottled waters that they can contain bacteria and certain chemical contaminants at levels harmful to one's health if consumed over a long period of time.
Anthony Flowers, Water Analyst, Ministry of Health
"From our monitoring we have found problems with a few of these companies. Mostly in the area of bacteriological quality. So we have found coliforms in bottled water samples and usually whenever we find those as I mention we would normally have that product removed from the market so that it is not consumed by the public."
Bottled water is drinking water packaged in plastic or glass containers, and in Belize the dominant form of packaging is in plastic bottles. It's a multimillion dollar business worldwide and its estimated that by next year, 2011, the market will show an increase of more than 40 percent since 2006. And in Belize the major players like Bowen and Bowen who started their Crystal Bottling operations in May of 1994 continue to dominate the market locally because of their financial resources and their claim to ensure the safest product on the market for the consumer. Its Plant Manager, Nolan Michael says, they are way ahead of the game when it comes to consumer safety.
"Obviously you have to take a look at the packaging. The packaging describes quality of the product that you produce. We take great care in placing of of the most descriptive labels on our products. We also placed Best Before Date as well as Date of Production on the neck of our bottles which you can ensure you are receiving the freshest possible product. That ensures traceability for us, we can trace back to all of the starting raw materials, everything that we used in the production of that particular product. Customers can rest assured that all times that we have appropriate quality control and the appropriate quality assurance in place to ensure that they are receiving the best quality products at all times."
Another major player in the water bottling business is the Valley Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of CPBL, whose Commercial Director says they are one in only a few with the proper infrastructure in place to provide safe drinkable water.
David Craig, Commercial Director, Valley Manufacturing Co.
"We are probably one of the few out of that 35 or 36 or 37 people that are producing bottled water right now that has the proper certification. Along with Cystal we have ISO 90001 we have ISO 140001, we are HACCP certified and we are heading for BRC certification. The consultant was saying that there are many of these people that will fall by the wayside when this regulation actually comes into force."
But let the public be aware, that Bottled water does not necessarily mean that it has undergone any specific treatment process or is better than plain tap water or any other source. In fact, some bottled water is simply tap water bottled and sold.
"But besides the growing trend towards purchasing bottled water by the larger Belizean community, there are still those like Ms. Antonia Reyes who believe that the old way is still the best way in getting her source of water."
(Older woman drinking from vat)
Studies show that consumers are paying several hundred times more per unit by volume for bottled water than they are for tap water. Typically, 90 percent or more of the cost paid by bottled water consumers goes to things other than the water itself, example: bottling, packaging, marketing, retailing, other expenses and profit. There is one inarguable advantage though, and that is bottled water has reduced amounts of copper, lead and other metal contaminants, since it doesn't run through the plumbing pipes where tap water is exposed to metal corrosion.