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Mineral water industry has thirst for fight

If it is bottled, is it good for your conscience? Keystone

Business leaders and politicians have formed ranks to stop campaigners turning off the tap to Switzerland's SFr900 Million ($834 million) bottled water industry.

This content was published on June 13, 2009 - 16:51

A powerful new lobby aims to prevent a global wave of adverse public opinion to bottled water crashing onto Swiss shores. The industry has suffered from a "back to tap water" environmentalist campaign.

Green groups have managed to influence public sentiment in the US, Canada, Britain and France by highlighting the double pollution peril of plastic bottles and transporting water around the world.

Some restaurants, keen to demonstrate their green credentials, have even stopped serving bottled mineral water – a product once viewed as a healthier and more sophisticated alternative to plain tap water.

The Swiss home market has not been hit as badly by such environmental campaigns as the Swiss are big recyclers and most of the water does not have to travel far from local sources.

However, that did not stop one parliamentarian from launching a motion to ban bottled water in Switzerland, which was easily defeated in March. In addition, sales for Swiss firms, such as Nestlé, have begun to dry up in important markets.

A new lobby group, IG Mineralwasser, was launched on Friday to protect the Swiss mineral water industry that generates around SFr900 million in sales per year. Several prominent politicians have joined its ranks, with Christophe Darbellay, the head of the centre-right Christian Democrat party, named as president.

Marcel Kreber, general secretary of the Swiss Association of Mineral Water and Soft Drinks Producers, told swissinfo.ch the lobby's main focus would be to nip US-style anti-bottled water campaigns in the bud.

Against prohibition

"We do not want the same thing happening in Switzerland – there is no need for it," he said. "We are not fighting against tap water at all – both have a right to be there and to be consumed. We are against prohibition – people should be free to choose what they drink."
Kreber explained that mineral water comes in bottles because it must by law be bottled at source and cannot be transported to its destination by any other means. Carefully avoiding any reference to enhanced health qualities, Kreber said this rule gave mineral water an advantage over opposition from the tap.

"Because of this, mineral water is very natural while tap water can be treated in various ways," he said. In Britain, for example, fluoride is added to tap water is some regions.

One of Switzerland's largest producer of bottled mineral water, Nestlé, has already been meeting the growing threat on its own by designing more environmentally sound bottles for many of its products, which include Perrier and Vittel.

The IG Mineralwasser lobby group has a mandate to work on behalf of the entire Swiss industry. The group claims that a ban on mineral water in Switzerland would cost 25,000 jobs.

However, judging from the muted reaction from Greenpeace Switzerland, there seems very little chance of that happening.

"Most mineral water consumed in Switzerland comes from local sources so this does not have much of an ecological impact [in terms of transport pollution]. This is not such a big theme for us," spokeswoman Susanne Schnyder told swissinfo.ch.

"However, it is better if people consume water bottled with glass rather than plastic."

Matthew Allen, swissinfo.ch

Mineral Water Industry

The mineral water industry worldwide is estimated to generate sales of over SFr100 billion ($93 billion). In Switzerland, annual sales reach in the region of SFr800-900 million.

Swiss manufacturers produced some 594 million litres of mineral water in 2008, slightly down from the previous year, and exported nearly nine million litres.

With imports of some 302 million litres of mineral water, the Swiss consume 115 litres per year per head of population.

This is down from a peak of 126 litres per year in 2003.

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