BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (CN) — Nestle’s marketing and sales of Poland Spring water has been “a colossal fraud perpetrated against American consumers,” 11 people claim in a federal class action.
Filing their suit Tuesday in Connecticut, where Nestle is based, the lead plaintiffs are from the Nutmeg State as well as New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. They say they would not have paid a premium for the water had they known it did not actually come from eight purported natural springs in Maine.
Rather than being “100% Natural Spring Water,” the “products all contain ordinary groundwater that defendant collects from wells it drilled in saturated plains or valleys where the water table is within a few feet of the earth’s surface,” lead plaintiff Mark J. Patane says in the complaint.
“The vast bulk of that groundwater is collected from Maine’s most populous counties in southwestern Maine, only a short distance from the New Hampshire border,” the complaint continues.
As required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, all bottled spring water must be collected either at the source of a naturally occurring spring or from a well that draws from a natural spring.
“In hydrogeological parlance, all such well water must be ‘hydraulically connected’ to a genuine spring,” the complaint states. But the class says that’s not the case for defendant Nestle Waters North America’s eight sites in Maine.
Reacting to the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for Nestle Waters North America held true to the company’s slogan.
“The claims made in the lawsuit are without merit and an obvious attempt to manipulate the legal system for personal gain,” the spokeswoman said in a statement. “Poland Spring is 100% spring water. It meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations defining spring water, all state regulations governing spring classification for standards of identity, as well as all federal and state regulations governing spring water collection, good manufacturing practices, product quality and labeling. We remain highly confident in our legal position.”
Patane claims that if the eight sites used to bottle water did contain a spring, and the Connecticut-based company bottles 1 billion gallons a year, the spring would have to flow at an average rate of 245 gallons per minute: more forcefully than a 2-inch-diameter fire hose at 40 pounds per square inch.
“Such a spring would be plainly visible – more like a geyser than a spring – and undoubtedly well known,” plaintiffs’ attorney Craig Raabe says in the 325-page complaint. “Yet there is no photographic proof that even one such spring – much less eight – exists on or near defendant’s sites in Maine.”
The plaintiffs say the famous Poland Spring in Poland Spring, Maine, ran dry nearly 50 years ago — decades before Nestle Waters bought the Poland Spring brand name. The “spring” Nestle claims exists in Poland Spring is at the bottom of a lake.
“It has never been proven to exist, and the evidence that defendant itself filed with Maine regulators shows it does not exist,” the complaint states. “Because the Poland Spring is not a source of its products, defendant’s use of the ‘Poland Spring’ brand name is unlawful.”
The class claims Nestle has gone so far as to fake the existence of springs on its sites “by causing well water to flow artificially through pipes or plastic tubes into wetlands that contain no genuine springs.”
“Artificial man-made ‘springs’ do not satisfy FDA standards,” the complaint states. “Genuine springs must have a ‘natural orifice’ through which water ‘flows naturally’ to the surface, without human assistance. By faking the existence of springs, defendant is defrauding its consumers,” according to the complaint.
Even worse, the class claims, are the conditions surrounding groundwater-collection sites.
“Unknown to the general public, one or more wells at each of defendant’s six largest volume groundwater collection sites in Maine – which in recent years have collectively supplied up to 99 percent of the water in Poland Spring Water products – are near a present or former human waste dump, refuse pit, landfill, ash pile, salt mound, farm where pesticides were previously used, fish hatchery or toxic petroleum dump site,” the complaint states.
“While Poland Spring Water products are not frequently contaminated because defendant disinfects – and in some cases has purified – the groundwater it collects, Poland Spring Water labels are misleading under FDA rules because, in addition to falsely advertising that the bottles contain ‘100% Natural Spring Water’ purportedly sourced from natural springs, the labels depict pristine scenes of water flowing down a verdant hillside or a forest pond to convey an image of natural purity when, in fact, the vast bulk of the water is drawn from wells in low-lying populated areas near potential sources of contamination. The labels are also deceptive to the extent defendant purifies the water. If consumers knew where defendant’s wells were actually located, rather than being misled by defendant’s falsely reassuring labels depicting pristine scenes, and knew the extent to which defendant treated or purified the water, they would not buy, or would not pay premium prices for, Poland Spring Water products.”
None of this appears to have damaged sales.
Poland Spring Water revenue nationwide was about $400 million in 2007 and has ranged from $300 million to $900 million annually for each of the past nine years.
The plaintiffs call it marketing fraud, which enables Nestle to sell its water more cheaply than competitors in the spring-water market, but charge more than those in the purified-water market.
They seek class certification, an injunction and at least $5 million in damages for false advertising, breach of contract, deceptive labeling and consumer-law violations.
Attorney Raabe is with Izard, Kindall and Raabe of West Hartford. Co-counsel from New Jersey, New York and California also signed the complaint.
In California, the federal government faces a suit for information on Nestle’s permit to pump millions of gallons of water from Strawberry Creek in San Bernardino National Forest. Nestle pays just $524 a year for the permit, which it uses to sell Arrowhead and Pure Life bottled water.