ANAHEIM—Most people who engage in the tap versus bottled water debate probably do not know the extent to which the federal government goes to make sure there is not any difference between the two.

Sure, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates tap water and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottle water, but the standards EPA sets for your municipal water system will inevitability be imposed on bottled water manufacturers by FDA, often on the very same day.

FDA’s Henry Kim and the International Bottled Water Association’s Bob Hirst teamed up Monday for a sort of graduate course in bottled water safety.  

It was one of dozens of presentations made at the annual meeting being held near Disneyland by the 99-year old International Association for Food Protection (IAFP).  

“Bottled water is considered a processed food,” said Kim.  He went though the regulatory structure that makes sure bottled water does not fall behind the standards EPA imposes on public tap water.

The latest example of how that works involves EPA proposed revisions to the 1989 Total Coliform Rule for all public water systems.   It is accepting public comment until Sept. 13, 2010, and if adopted FDA will turn around and impose the new rule on the bottled water industry.

Hirst said that will be one of the challenges for the bottled water industry in 2010.

EPA and FDA both set maximum allowable levels for about 90 different contaminants that might be found in low levels in both tap and bottled water.  Kim said FDA could impose a different standard if there is a basis for doing so.

There is a different standard for lead, for example, because some older municipal water systems acquire lead from the pipes.  The lead standard for bottled water is stricter.

Both speakers pointed to the success of imposing a “Zero Tolerance” policy on the bottled water industry.  Bottlers must test for E. coli if tests of its water source come back with unacceptable coliform levels.  Generic E. coli is considered an indicator for the presence of E. coli O157:H7.