Bottled water is a food product in a class of its own when it comes to protecting product quality. Water has unique risk factors for contamination during processing, packaging and storage. This article will discuss helpful tips for protecting bottled water products, some common pitfalls to avoid that can affect product quality and successful sampling suggestions for preventing sample contamination and improving the water testing experience.
Protecting Product Quality
Are your customers complaining of “white floaties” in their bottled water? Precipitation of calcium would seem to be the logical culprit, but what if the particles only show up intermittently?
If you are only getting occasional customer complaints about these calcium precipitates, and nothing ever seems to settle in your retained product samples, frigid temperatures may be the enemy.
The National Testing Laboratories (NTL) has consulted with a couple of bottled water companies that have experienced this problem. Both companies distribute in the northern part of the U.S. where, on occasion, finished product water has been exposed to freezing temperatures during shipment or storage. This has caused the calcium in their water to precipitate into the dreaded white floaties. By simply changing some procedures with regard to product handling, these companies were able to mitigate this mysteriously intermittent problem.
Anything that comes in contact with your water should be handled as carefully as the water itself. These items should never be stored in the same area as potential sources of contamination, such as cleaning products, fuels or pesticides. Anything that produces an odor can pose a risk, and these odors can get into the product water. They can also be absorbed by packaging materials, which can lead to product quality complaints. Even water testing supplies have the potential to cause chemical detections in samples if the kits are stored or handled improperly. The aggressive nature of water causes it to have a higher exposure risk than that of other food or beverage products. The more pure the water is, the greater the risk. Water is called the “universal solvent,” meaning the closer the water is to pure H2O, the more it wants to absorb other elements.
Be mindful of exposure to the environment. Microbiological growth can occur in bottles due to exposure to direct sunlight. Airborne mold spores, insects, rainwater or other foreign objects can get into uncapped returnable bottles that are stored outside. Algae growth is a common summertime nuisance. These microscopic organisms like to latch onto crevices in well-worn returnable bottles. The sunlight and warmer temperatures can cause algae to flourish in a bottle of water. Even though the bottles go through the wash cycle, the organisms are very resilient. The best practice would be to discard any bottles with visible algae growth so that it does not become a reoccurring quality problem.
It is not always easy to control the conditions to which your product or bottles may be exposed, but educating your employees, suppliers, transporters, distributors and customers, as well as encouraging them to pay closer attention to proper product handling practices, can save a lot of quality-control headaches and customer complaints. Incorporate safe handling procedures for products, ingredients, packaging and testing materials into your written procedures. Post notices and issue periodic reminders to maintain awareness. Make sure quality-control personnel maintain current continuing education training. Since the reputation of your product is so critical in this highly competitive market, attention to small details is essential.
When submitting water samples to the laboratory for analysis, be sure to read all of the instructions provided with the kit or forms you receive. Familiarizing yourself with the proper sampling procedures in advance can help avoid problems and save time. Here are some tips for avoiding such problems:
- Read all of the instructions carefully.
- Call and ask questions if an instruc- tion is not completely clear.
- Plan for the shipping method you will be using and make the proper arrangements prior to filling the sample bottles.
- Gather all sampling supplies in advance and verify that everything is included and in good condition. If anything seems incorrect, call your laboratory representative.
- Freeze gel packs in advance.
- Have ice on hand to put in coolers (where indicated).
- Plan to collect samples within the specified time restrictions.
- Make sure you have gathered all of the information required.
- Fill all bottles according to the instructions. Some bottles have special filling requirements in order to obtain valid test results.
- Fill out all of the information requested on the sample information form or chain of custody (collection date and time, specific sample identification, type of water, etc.).
- If sending multiple sample types in the same package, make sure sample bottles are marked or labeled with specific identification that matches the corresponding sample information form or chain of custody.
- If you are submitting samples for more than one type of finished product water, be sure you are using the correct forms with each sample that has been designated for that product type (if indicated). Some types of water have different analytical requirements than others. Therefore, your purified water test may be flagged for a different scope of testing than your spring water test. These forms give the lab direction on what testing is to be performed on the specific samples accompanying them, so sending the correct forms with the correct samples will help you to get the appropriate analysis.
- Ship samples and paperwork within the time frame specified in the sampling instructions. For large tests, you may be shipping boxes to multiple locations, so be sure each kit gets shipped to the proper lab with the applicable paperwork.
When collecting water samples, it is important to consider your surroundings. Cleanliness of the work surface, air quality and personal hygiene must be considered as potential sources of sample contamination during the sampling process. Take into consideration all activities going on in the facility to be sure that none of them could pose a contamination threat.
Setting bottles on an unclean work surface and then handling those bottles during the filling process can lead to contaminants being transferred to the bottles to your hands to potentially, to the samples.
Airborne contaminants and odors can contaminate your samples during collection. Do not collect near doors open to the outside or around sources of odors, such as fresh paint, cologne, cleaners, space heaters, etc. When collecting samples directly from the source, you cannot avoid the outdoors, but be mindful of potential outside sources of contamination in the surrounding area that should be avoided.
Personal hygiene considerations for the sampler should be just as stringent as those applied on the production line—hand washing, hair nets, no cologne, etc.
Contamination Due to Sanitization Procedures
Being extra diligent in preparation for sampling can cause its own problems. If you are cleaning the work surface, production lines or your hands prior to sampling, be sure to use only cleaners that are FDA-approved for use in a food facility. There are plenty of products available in stores that are great for home use but not suitable for use in a bottled water production facility. The latest product we have come across as a potential sample contaminant is antimicrobial hand sanitizing gel. While it is an effective product, using this on your hands prior to sampling can result in detections of phenols in the water sample. This is the most common contaminant resulting from the use of inappropriate cleaning products.
Wearing latex gloves during sample collection also may seem like a good idea. They are fine to use when collecting samples that are only for microbiological testing; however, if you wear them while collecting samples for the more broad-spectrum annual test, it could result in a detection of phthalates, which is not good. Simply using the appropriate soap and water to wash hands, with thorough rinsing, is quite effective and usually the safest bet for all things considered.
Paying close attention to these details can help you better protect product quality and help the lab serve you better.