Restaurant Reviews

Kick the Bottle

Page 2 of 5

Lapidus and Denning take turns with talking points, often expressed by way of illustrative statistical comparisons. For instance, Lapidus paints the pocketbook issue thusly: "A family of three who rely exclusively on bottled water will, by the time the first child is 18, have already spent the equivalent of that child's college education in a public university on that water."

They've got a million of 'em.

Because of their backgrounds in international studies, the two are quick to place corporate control of water in a broader worldwide context — which can be summed up by saying that for one of six people on the planet, there is water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

When conversation drifts back to the domestic, Denning notes that Nestlé typically gets its product from "underground sources in economically depressed communities." A young couple seated at the next table, sipping from bottles of Nestlé's Zephyrhills water, casts resentful expressions our way, no less disdainful than had we been flashing slaughterhouse photos while they were trying to enjoy steak dinners.

Thirsty foreigners, cloddish carbon footprints, and the minutia of municipal law might not whet the public's whisker, but one thing that has mustered outrage is the notion that up to 40 percent of all bottled water comes from the faucet — or, more specifically, from your tax-funded municipal water supply.

"People feel duped," Denning says. "We pay the money to get clean public water, and corporations are taking advantage of that and selling it back to us at thousands of times the price. We are, in effect, subsidizing the industry." He is speaking here not of high-end imported brands, which are steeped in problems of their own, but those such as Coca-Cola-owned Dasani, the water for which is fished from Broward County aquifers and bottled on Pembroke Road in Hollywood.

3. Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing

The Pembroke plant is a foreboding structure: huge, windowless, and sealed by tall chainlink fencing that in one section gets crowned with barbed wire. A barricade of red tape likewise protects the property; protocol for getting past public relations is seemingly more stringent than that of the Pentagon's War Room: no interviews with management granted, no access to the premises permitted.

The Coca-Cola Co.'s guardedness is in keeping with the surreptitious nature of the industry regarding its product sourcing (which isn't specified on labels) and safety (unlike public water systems, there is no requirement to report breaches in quality). In other words, the water biz lacks transparency.

Dasani's Florida stock comes from Broward County, which buys its water from the City of Hollywood Water Treatment Plant, which secures its supply from the Biscayne and Floridan aquifers. It has been estimated that the average bulk cost paid for public water is 1 to 2 cents a gallon. At a Publix supermarket in Miami Beach, a 20-ounce single-serve bottle of Dasani costs, with tax, $1.50 — or $10 to $20 a gallon, about 500 to 1,000 times the price.

Coca-Cola doesn't sell the water as is, because then it would have to attach the dull "bottled water" label. By putting the product through a secondary purification process known as reverse osmosis, the company can call it a more pedigreed "purified." "Each water has its own flavor due to mineral content and that sort of thing," says Martha Harbin, executive director of the Florida Beverage Association. "Reverse osmosis removes all of that and takes water down to its natural essence. Then some of those minerals are added back in to create a product that tastes the same, regardless of where you purchase your water."

Consistency is indeed one of two irrefutable advantages that bottled water has over tap; convenience is the other. Harbin, who at the behest of Coca-Cola called New Times from Tallahassee as a stand-in spokesperson (one who "couldn't speak for the Coca-Cola Co., only for the industry"), was stymied when asked if there were any additional reasons for people to purchase something they can otherwise get for free.

"Well, it's healthy that you should be drinking water," she said, "which isn't a reason to drink just bottled water but to drink water in general."

Convenience can also be had with refillable water bottles — many efficient models are now on the market — or even with a return of public drinking fountains. But what about the consistency of "free" water? Traveling from Tallahassee to Tampa, you'll be tapping into many very different sources — and some municipal systems are more efficient than others. What's in your faucet?

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Lee Klein