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Lawsuit Claims Poland Spring Water Is 'a Colossal Fraud’

The plaintiffs say it's nothing more than common groundwater.

Jesse Hicks

Portland Press Herald / Getty Images

The label on Poland Spring bottled water proudly proclaims it to be "100 percent natural spring water," from a brand established in 1845. A new class-action lawsuit, though, claims that what's inside Poland Spring bottles isn't spring water at all: It's "common groundwater" branded as spring water in order to be sold at a premium. In the words of the lawsuit, it's "a colossal fraud perpetrated against American consumers."

The 325-page lawsuit, filed in Connecticut federal court Tuesday, takes aim at the company behind the Poland Spring brand: Nestlé Waters North America, a subsidiary of Swiss food giant Nestlé. Eleven plaintiffs say they've spent thousands of dollars on Poland Spring water, for which they wouldn't have paid a premium if they'd known it allegedly wasn't spring water. They're seeking $5 million in damages for a nationwide class of consumers for false advertising, deceptive labeling, breach of contract, and more.

At issue is the definition of "spring water." Poland Spring is bottled at eight sites in Maine, but the plaintiffs allege that none of those sources meet the Food and Drug Administration's definition of spring water. The FDA says "spring water" can only describe H20 that is "derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth." If it's collected using external versus natural force, the water has to come from the same underground stratum, or layer, as the spring, as shown by a hydraulic connection.

The suit alleges that none of Nestlé's sites have been scientifically proven to be connected to a spring and that their wells draw in surface water. Instead, the lawsuit accuses the company of building man-made springs on seven of its eight sites to "to feign compliance with FDA regulations." Basically, the plaintiffs claim that Nestlé has simply been bottling purified groundwater and passing it off as fancy spring water since 1993. The complaint suggests that Poland Spring should be labeled as "drinking water," "bottled water," "well water," or "purified water." (While we're on the topic, Nestlé Pure Life, Aquafina, and Dasani are all purified.)

Remarkably, Poland Spring faced a similar suit more than a decade ago. In 2003, two plaintiffs sued for false advertising, claiming the supposed spring water was groundwater from sources surrounded by ''asphalt parking lots.'' The original Poland Spring has not flowed since 1967, the plaintiffs said. Nestlé settled that suit, admitting no wrongdoing, but agreeing to step up its quality control and pay $10 million both in discounts to consumers and contributions to charities.

The plaintiffs in the current suit also claim that Nestlé has been able to get away with the alleged deception because it has co-opted state regulators. The company has generated millions for the state through licensing agreements since 1998, and has long had an executive on the government body that enforces drinking water standards. The suit alleges that a scientist from the Maine Drinking Water Program who approved the many of the company's permits worked with the Poland Spring executive for more than a decade and the MDWP did not independently verify the existence of the company's eight purported springs.

A spokesperson for Nestlé Waters said in a statement: "The claims made in the lawsuit are without merit and an obvious attempt to manipulate the legal system for personal gain. Poland Spring is 100 percent spring water. It meets the US 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."

The company posted a video yesterday showing its Natural Resource Manager Mark Dubois evaluating water flow at a spring:

If the two sides don't reach a settlement beforehand, it'll be up to a jury to decide the case.

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