By Shakeh Avoyan
The ban on sales of Armenia’s most popular brand of mineral water in the United States may still be lifted if appropriate changes are made in its labeling, an official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicated on Tuesday.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the ban on Jermuk bottled water last week, saying that it contains excessive amounts of arsenic, a poisonous chemical that can cause cancer. It said Jermuk importers have already recalled the product from stores in California and other Armenian-populated parts of the U.S. The move prompted a similar decision by health authorities in neighboring Canada.
According to Sean Carmody, who runs a USDA project in Armenia, the USDA is now collecting additional information about Jermuk for FDA. He said the still and carbonated water bottled by several Armenian firms is not as dangerous for health as the FDA ban might suggest.
“You have to drink a lot of mineral water per day to really have any effect. You have to drink around 20 liters of water a day,” Carmody told RFE/RL. “It’s either a testing issue or a labeling issue,” he added, demonstratively sipping Jermuk on the sidelines of a roundtable discussion on Armenia’s national food safety strategy.
FDA argued that laboratory tests have found that Jermuk products contain between 500 and 600 micrograms of arsenic per liter, or at least 50 times more than is allowed by U.S. safety standards. It said extended exposure to the poisonous metal could lead to cancer and death.
Armenian medical authorities admit that Jermuk is “medical water” that should be regularly drunk only by individuals suffering some stomach and intestinal diseases. Gennady Myroniuk, director of the Kiev-based International Institute for Food Safety and Quality, believes local manufacturers must be make this clear to consumers.
“If the word ‘medical’ is on the label, then there has to be, as doctors call it, a consumption methodology,” Myroniuk told RFE/RL. “You can’t drink it at will.”
However, Jermuk continues to be is heavily advertised by Armenian television stations as “table water” meant for mass consumption. And representatives of companies bottling the water remained unrepentant on Tuesday, accusing FDA of playing into their competitors’ hands.
“This is a deliberate effort directed at Jermuk and other Armenian mineral waters,” charged Edgar Ghazarian of the Jermuk Group company. “Arsenic is also contained in other Armenian water brands. By driving Jermuk out of the U.S. market, they close it for other Armenian brands of water as well.”
The claims were echoed by Armenia’s Deputy Agriculture Minister Samvel Avetisian. “My personal guess is that this is more of an issue of [unfair] market competition than food safety,” said Avetisian. “We all drink and will continue to drink Jermuk,” he added.