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Nouveau Perrier Makes Spotty Debut on French Market

March 7, 1990

PARIS (AP) _ Perrier sparkling water made less than a splash Wednesday with an uneven- but-official return to the French market three weeks after a global recall of 160 million bottles.

Few cafes or supermarkets had received new shipments of the popular water to replace those withdrawn from sale after traces of the cancer-causing chemical benzene were found in some bottles.

Source Perrier SA began resupplying its distributors this week with the familiar pear-shaped green bottles bearing the words ″Nouvelle Production″ - ″New Production″ - for an official launch Wednesday in France.

But by midday, it seemed that only the largest suburban supermarkets, whose chains handle their own distribution, had any of the freshly bottled vintage for sale.

″We just got it in this morning,″ said Gerard Vigan, manager of a large supermarket in Montesson, east of Paris. ″Nobody’s coming in specially to buy it, but it is selling.″

Vigan predicted sales would reach normal levels of 200-300 bottles daily by Saturday, the traditional shopping day in France.

At the Cezanne bar in the shadow of Perrier’s headquarters in central Paris, owner Martial Sauvard said he didn’t expect new bottles of Perrier until next week.

″Anyway, we sell more wine than water - more beer, more champagne, more coffee,″ he chuckled, hands clasped across his huge belly. ″That’s Paris.″

A customer chimed in, ″And the wine isn’t polluted.″

Perrier spokesman Xavier Delacroix said it would take time to replace the 48 million bottles pulled off the shelves in France with new ones bearing labels showing they were bottled since the recall.

″It’s not possible to fill up all the empty shelves in a single blow,″ he said. ″It will be done progressively.″

Delacroix said Perrier’s plant at Vergeze in southern France is turning out 6 million ″Nouvelle Production″ bottles a day.

The recall was voluntary in France after Health Ministry officials determined that traces of benzene of 20 parts per billion posed little threat to consumers. The U.S. limit is 5 parts per billion. Most European standards are 10 parts per billion.

In contrast with the $25 million TV and print media ad campaign launched Wednesday in the United States to recapture the American market, Perrier’s domestic re-entry was low-key.

No advertisements accompanied the return in Wednesday’s editions of the national press. A spokeswoman for the ad agency Eurocom, which is handling the Perrier account, said a $2.6 million, three-day print media blitz later this week would begin and probably end the domestic campaign.

Perrier withdrew the water from sale in 120 countries Feb. 14 after traces of benzene were found in Perrier samples in several countries, including the United States, Canada, West Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Company officials said benzene entered the water when workers failed to replace a filter in a pipe carrying carbon dioxide gas from the underground spring to the bottling plant.

Perrier said Tuesday that an international team of experts using ″extremely sophisticated techniques″ would ensure that the mineral water stays pure.

The company has not yet calculated the worldwide cost of the resupply program, but has estimated that the recall would put a $35 million dent in its profits.

The new bottles should be available throughout Europe, Canada and the eastern United States by early April, Perrier said, with new bottles arriving in the western United States by April 22.