Troubled waters keep Coke's Dasani off French shelves

In a land where babies drink Evian and consumers pay a premium for 'natural,' revelations about chemical content threatens to sink a US brand .

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"Waiting for Dasani..."

That has been the slogan, full of anticipation, on the French website of America's second biggest bottled water brand, as Coca Cola prepared to roll out its latest transAtlantic assault on the land of Perrier and Evian next month.

Now, it seems, the French will have to wait a bit longer. Coca-Cola announced Wednesday that it was indefinitely postponing Dasani's launch in both France and Germany in the wake of a public-relations fiasco that has focused fresh attention on what those handy little bottles of water actually contain.

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Score one to the French, then, as they battle to defend their precious food and drinks industry against an American invasion that has swept the country with Coke and Big Macs?

Not really. The US beverage giant appears, rather, to have shot itself in the foot as it sought a niche in a connoisseur's market.

Coca-Cola's European retreat comes in the wake of a disastrous introduction of Dasani in Great Britain, where one embarrassing revelation after another has polluted the Continental market.

First, it was discovered that Dasani, marketed as "pure, still water" and sold for 95 pence ($1.74) a half liter, was simply a treated version of tap water from Sidcup (a bedroom community southeast of London), for which local residents pay a nickel.

"Eau Dear," punned one British tabloid headline writer.

But things got worse for Dasani's $13 million British marketing campaign. Last week, Coca-Cola hastily withdrew 500,000 bottles when it was discovered they contained nearly twice the legal amounts of a chemical that may cause cancers if consumed in large amounts. The company says it has no immediate plans for a relaunch in Britain.

Though Coca-Cola initially said it would press ahead with plans to launch Dasani in France next month, and in Germany in May, it issued a statement Wednesday that "the timing is no longer considered optimal."

That was a major blow, considering that Coca-Cola is looking to water to refresh its sagging growth of carbonated drinks. In 2002, water accounted for 42 percent of its worldwide sales growth.

"They are right not to launch it now," says Jean Pierre Loisel, an expert in French consumer patterns. "Now everybody knows that behind the Dasani label is Coca-Cola. When people are looking for a healthy product they don't want it associated with Coke, which epitomizes the antinatural."

The French are very attached to their mineral water, drinking about 140 liters (roughly 37 gallons) a year each - about twice as much as Americans. They are also known to spray it on their faces (Evian sells vaporizers) and to give it to their babies: Evian sells a nipple attachment that fits onto its 33 cl bottles.

The French also like their mineral water to come from natural springs. Worldwide, 40 percent of bottled water is "purified" table water, rather than out of the earth, according to Canadean, an independent beverage-research company, but in France only a "negligible" amount is treated tap water, a company analyst says.

Of the 17 bottled waters at my supermarket, only one does not advertise itself as being natural mineral water or spring water.

Coca-Cola recognized that: The water for its Dasani bottles in France would have come from a spring in neighboring Belgium, unlike the treated tap water in Americans' Dasani bottles.

In Britain, the company took water that came out of the tap at its Sidcup plant and subjected it to sand, carbon, and micron filtration before putting it through reverse osmosis. That process, however, eliminates most of the minerals that make water water, so Coca-Cola added back calcium chloride to meet British water standards. The calcium chloride, the company explained, contained bromide that led to excess levels of bromate, which has been linked to cancer.

Coca-Cola insists that this was "an isolated and resolved incident," and there have been no signs of similar problems with any of the 1.3 billion liters of Dasani sold in America each year.

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