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West Europeans, south Asians and Japanese live in the most densely populated regions of the globe and worry constantly about the quality of their drinking water drawn from rivers and lakes. Most is polluted and unfit for human consumption. In North America, people never worried about water quality and safety until early 1970’s and restaurants always provided iced water free. Some still do.

     Then came Perrier, the French mineral water emphasizing how restaurateurs could increase their revenues by replacing iced water service with bottled water. Restaurateurs never miss an opportunity to increase their profits, and soon studies started to surface claiming that serving iced water was costly and no one benefited. Many restaurants started serving automatically bottled water, and charged outrageous amounts i.e $ 3.50 for 300 ml.

     These days, a 750 ml bottle goes for $ 10.- in some restaurants, plus applicable taxes and tip!

     Meanwhile, the word savvy bottled water marketers started circulating the myth  that drinking bottled mineral water is safer, never mentioning what their  studies were comparing.

     It is said that the inhabitants of seven cities between Switzerland and the Netherlands consume the water of the Rhine River. In these parts people drink beer, wine, bottled water or fruit juices and shun tap water.

     North Americans have recently begun to drink bottled water, but already the distinction between spring water, mineral water, and filtered tap water is blurred beyond redemption.

     Spring water must come from a natural springs with proven purity of contaminants; mineral water must contain 2000 parts per million in minerals; and filtered tap water means just that.

     Europeans always preferred mineral water or eau de source (spring water) since their rivers were polluted a long time ago.

     Now considerable efforts are made to clean all major European Rivers. The Rhine River, the Thames, the Loire are clean enough to allow several species of fish to thrive.

     As always, large companies with considerable cash reserves dominate the market. Groupe Danone, a French conglomerate, markets Evian, Volvic and Crystal Springs; Nestle, a Swiss food multinational with headquarters in Montreux markets Perrier, Nestle Pure Life and San Pellegrino. Not to be outdone soft drink giant Coca-Cola joined the cause with filtered tap water and positioned their brand as pure, safe, life-style water. Coca Cola markets Dasani and Pepsi Cola Aquafina

     When it comes to mineral water, Voss (Norway); Tynant (Ireland); Vitel, Cathledon, Volvic, (France); Appolinaris (Germany), Spa (Belgium); Gasteiner (Austria); San Benedetto, San Pellegrino, Aqua di Nepi, Lete (Italy), Ramlosa (Sweden);Borsec (Romania) stand out. They display distinct taste profiles that spring and filtered waters lack, but tend to be more expensive.

     When it comes to consumption, Canadians consume approximately 30 litres per capita, Italians 158 litres, French 133, Dutch 119, Germans 101 and Americans 76.

     The low per capita consumption can be attributed to the illusion that tap water is safe. In reality, only large cities control tap water quality regularly and vigorously and treat it appropriately for safety.

     In small communities, scarce financial resources and lacking expertise often make tap water safety questionable. Since the introduction of PET bottles (polyethylene terephate) bottled water consumption increased by 16 percent in five years and continuing growth of the market is forecast by the Canadian Bottled Water Association in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

     The question for restaurant patrons remains whether to ask for bottled or mineral water, or demand ice water.

     It all depends on the situation. You can ask politely for ice water, if that is what you prefer, or a glass of wine, or beer. The cost is almost the same for all the three, or you can complain to management that prices charged for bottled water are ridiculous as is the case with wine.
     Patrons on business expense accounts never complain since the company is paying.

     I strongly feel that if enough people complain, restaurateurs will start charging reasonable prices for both.

     Prices always find their level of comfort. The saying “What the market can bear” is as apt today as when it was coined.

Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu

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