Perrier, Vittel: French brands ‘illegally filtered contaminated water’

The allegations are serious, including claims of contaminated sources, illegal filtration practices, and a lack of government reporting

A view of mineral water in bottles at a packaging factory
Nestlé Waters is accused of using polluted water sources and then using illegal filtration methods to cover this up
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Water from the food and drink giant Nestlé and others was illegally filtered due to contaminated sources, an investigation has alleged, with 30% of the brands reportedly affected.

The inquiry from Le Monde newspaper - and partners at Les Echos and Radio France - named brands including French iconic names Perrier and Vittel. On January 29, Les Echos claimed that “for years, Nestlé infringed regulations on the maintenance of the safety of its water”.

FranceInfo has said that Nestlé was aware of the investigation and plans to publish the allegations as investigative journalists had sent it questions surrounding the case.

The issue is “more complex” than Nestlé would want the public to believe, the newscaster has said.

Types of bottled water in France

In France, the Public Health Code mentions three types of bottled water:

  • Natural mineral water, distinguished by its 'original purity' (such as Perrier, Vittel, Evian)

  • Spring water (Cristaline)

  • Water ‘made drinkable by treatment’

Natural mineral waters and spring waters are supposed to be protected from the risks of contamination and pollution because they are drawn from deep underground aquifers.

This means that legally, they can only be purified by a limited number of treatments, and the use of carbon filters or UV filters is banned. The filter threshold must not be less than 0.8 microns, and filtration must only be used on an ad-hoc basis to filter out minerals such as iron or manganese.

Natural mineral water is intended to be pure already so it should not require purification. These strict rules are among the reasons that people in France often have such faith in natural mineral water, which is 100 times more expensive than tap water, but is supposed to be ‘purer’, ‘healthier’ and ‘better for you’.

Alleged filtration practices

The allegations about contaminated water sources and filtration practices centre on minutes from a meeting at the prime minister’s office at Matignon. This meeting was held in February 2023 between the Economy Ministry and the Health Ministry.

The minutes mention “action” and “transformation” at Nestlé’s water packaging plants, and “stronger bacteriological and virological monitoring of water quality”.

They also discuss “the possibility of authorising the practice of microfiltration of less than 0.8 microns by amending prefectural decrees”, with possible authorisation from then-Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.

Investigators saw the minutes, and found evidence - they claim - of misleading practices dating back years.

Worker tip-off

The claims began to emerge in 2020, when an anonymous worker at the Alma factory alleged the practices in a report submitted to the fraud and consumer office la Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes (DGCCRF).

The factory belongs to the Sources Alma group, which produces around 30 well-known water brands in France, including Cristaline, Santi-Yorre, Vichy Célestins, and Châteldon.

The DGCCRF found that the company appeared to be treating its water with non-compliant materials, including an injection of iron sulphate and industrial CO2, microfiltration below the authorised thresholds, and also mixing so-called ‘mineral’ or ‘spring’ water with water from the mains (tap water).

The public prosecutor on the case, Éric Neveu, in Cusset (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes), opened a preliminary investigation on July 7, 2023. He told Le Monde and Radio France that “a judicial investigation could be opened for several offences involving deception”.

However, the Alma group has hit back by stating (in the present tense): “We do not use any non-compliant treatments”. No prosecution has been brought.

Unauthorised filters at Nestlé Waters

The DGCCRF has also reportedly made further discoveries, and has said that the Alma group is not alone in its use of banned treatment practices, and that there is evidence that many manufacturers in the sector have purchased unauthorised filters.

Nestlé Waters - which has two water packaging sites in France - was discovered to be among these. Their factories are in Vosges (brands Vittel, Contrex, and Hépar); and in Gard, at Vergèze (Perrier).

Nestlé accounts for more than a third of the bottled water market in France.

Alleged request for legal change

In August 2021, the manufacturing giant requested a confidential meeting with Industry Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher.

It reportedly said then that it had used non-compliant treatments, adding that these were necessary to allow it to continue operating its water plants, to deal with water that was regularly contaminated.

Nestlé also - it is claimed - asked the government for permission to continue using these treatments, and suggested that the law be changed to allow the use of filters with a filtration capacity of less than 0.8 microns.

The investigators claim that, at this stage of the case, the government decided not to inform the courts or the European authorities, despite EU directives and French law stating that if a Member State has reason to believe a water does not comply it must immediately inform the commission.

The government is accused of entering into negotiations with the water giant, rather than reporting their actions.

Water packaging plant investigations

But while the government did not inform authorities, it did launch an investigation into water packaging plants in France.

A letter signed by Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire at Bercy, then-Health Minister Olivier Véran, and Ms Agnès Pannier-Runacher asked l’inspection générale des affaires sociales (Igas) to “assess the use of unauthorised treatments by manufacturers”.

The letter, reportedly seen by Le Monde and Radio France, asked Igas to ascertain “what impact these treatments, or their cessation, might have on the health quality of the water”.

Manufacturers were then questioned about the types of treatments used. A total of 32 inspections were carried out, including at the Nestlé Group factories.

The report, which was submitted to the government in July 2022, claims that “almost 30% of commercial designations undergo non-compliant treatment”, and that the percentage is “very probably higher", given “the difficulties for the inspection services in identifying deliberately concealed practices”, it alleged.

The report also claimed that all Nestlé brands are affected, including some in “serious breaches” of regulations, including the alleged use of “activated carbon and ultraviolet treatments”, which are banned.

The group is also accused of trying to hide these illegal treatments in the factories, including hiding them behind electrical cabinets, and using devices to deceive health inspectors about the source of the water.

Sources used by Nestlé are routinely contaminated with bacteria including E.Coli, and pesticide traces, the report claims.

The Igas report stated that “these practices clearly do not comply with the public health code. Nestlé Waters has announced a plan to return the situation to normal, but it is not certain that the deterioration in the quality of the resource can be stopped”.

‘Compatible filters’

Despite the allegations, Nestlé Waters has claimed that its systems are now compliant.

In a statement to Radio France and FranceInfo, it said: “Changes in climatic and environmental conditions, with the multiplication of extreme events such as droughts and floods, combined with the expansion of human activities around our sites, make it very difficult to maintain the stability of the essential characteristics of natural mineral water.”

It now states that it has “withdrawn” ultraviolet treatments and activated carbon filters from its factories, and that the microfiltration systems it uses now are “compatible with the regulatory framework”.

However, further investigations by Le Monde and Radio France claim that this is not true, and that a letter from national food safety agency Anses (l’Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l'alimentation, de l'environnement et du travail) said this month (January 2024) that filters should never be used to treat water because of a “lack of quality” at the source, as is claimed Nestlé did.

The group also claims that it has now “suspended” certain sources, and has begun “production of a new range of drinks based on water for human consumption" in Gard to take account of the "more sensitive nature of certain wells”.

Water safety?

This has led to questions about whether water from these brands is now safe, especially if the company has suspended the filtration methods it had been using.

Nestlé, however, has stated that “the health safety of our products has always been guaranteed and remains our absolute priority”. The Economy Ministry has also stated that “no health risk linked to the quality of bottled water has been identified at this stage”.

Legal case to come?

In October 2022, Le Monde and Radio France said that the Grand Est regional health agency (ARS) referred their claims to the Epinal public prosecutor, Frédéric Nahon. An investigation into the alleged offences in Vosges was opened in November of the same year.

However, other health agencies, including the ARS Occitanie (for Gard), are accused of doing little to address the claims. Nîmes public prosecutor Cécile Gensac told Radio France that she has “never heard of the slightest deception concerning the Perrier factory”.

Last year, the director of ARS Occitanie wrote to his teams that tap water should no longer be drunk because of pollution caused by eternal pollutants and pesticide by-products, and that bottled water should be used as an alternative.

However, Radio France and Le Monde now claim that many so-called “natural” waters are little better than tap water.

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