Famed Watsonville cider company rejects water fluoridation, builds own well
When Watsonville accepted $1.6 million from the California Dental Association Foundation to fluoridate the city’s water on Sept. 28, the hope was that the new system would reduce tooth decay, particularly among the poor. But what happens when one of the biggest employers, water consumers and most well-known businesses in town is vehemently against fluoridation?
Such is the dilemma currently facing John Martinelli, president of world famous juice maker S. Martinelli & Co.
A strong opponent of fluoridation, Martinelli has played a key role in the decade-long struggle to convince the Watsonville City Council that fluoride has not been proven safe or effective. But with a state law that says cities with 10,000 or more people must fluoridate if costs are covered by an outside agency, a refusal to comply would mean a fine of $200 per day against the city.
Regardless of the penalty, Martinelli sees it as a violation of human rights. “We really believe that fluoridation is morally and ethically wrong,” he says. “People should not be subjected to medicine without their consent. It should be a person’s choice.”
While Watsonville councilmembers Nancy Bilicich, Greg Caput and Emilio Martinez opposed fluoridation in the 4-3 vote that set the plan in motion, theirs and Martinelli’s pleas were no match to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called “one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.”
But that doesn’t mean that Martinelli won’t do everything in his power to stop it from impacting his 142-year-old family business.
Prior to this summer, the company, which created nonalcoholic cider as a stand-in for champagne during Prohibition, would not have been impacted by fluoridation due to the fact that none of their 100-percent juices and ciders contains water. However, Martinelli’s new Fruit Virtues line of acai, pomegranate, gogi and blueberry juices use water to reconstitute concentrate.
For this reason, Martinelli has decided to detach his company from the city’s water supply and build his own well.
A costly venture estimated at around $300,000, Martinelli’s plans to use its own money to drill down to the uncontaminated Aromas Red Sands Aquifer. While the president is not at all thrilled to have to invest in a well, he does not believe they have a choice with the fluoridation system estimated to be up and running in the next two years.
“We can’t believe that the city is taking good water and ruining it,” says Martinelli. “The well will cost a significant amount of money that we don’t have, but we don’t feel that we can ask the city to help us pay for it. Each resident should have the opportunity to ask the city for reverse fluoridation.”
According to the American Dental Association, Watsonville residents are now a part of the projected 72.4 percent of the U.S. population served by public water systems that receive optimally fluoridated water. Other fluoridated cities in California include Los Angeles, Long Beach, Beverly Hills and Huntington Beach.
The Association claims that fluoridation, which was first implemented in Grand Rapids, Mich. in 1945, works by halting or reversing decay and keeping tooth enamel strong. And many local dentists seem to agree, calling Watsonville’s dental hygiene “an epidemic” that needs immediate attention. Michelle Simon, a pediatrician whose joint practice cares for 6,000 Watsonville children, told the L.A. Times that she “has never seen such bad teeth outside Nicaragua.”
But critics across the country continue to believe that health officials are distorting scientific studies and lying about fluoride’s relation to thyroid problems, kidney malfunction and fetal damage.
If Martinelli’s were to continue depending on the city’s water system, they have no doubt that suspicious customers would boycott their products altogether.
“We’ve received quite a bit of feedback since we’ve stood up to fluoridation,” says Martinelli. “Ninety-percent of that feedback has been appreciative with the majority of our consumers agreeing with us and the other 10 percent are passionately upset that we’ve fought it.”
While a number of Santa Cruz residents have been attending meetings and actively supporting the company’s rejection of fluoridated water, Martinelli warns Watsonville’s neighbor to the north that they’re coming for us next.
“Santa Cruz may not want fluoridation,” says Martinelli. “But they have to know they’re on the list.”
The state has been attempting to fluoridate both cities for years, but in 1999 Santa Cruz prohibited the additive with an initiative known as Measure N and just four years later it was banned in Watsonville with Measure S.
At first, the decision to fluoridate in Watsonville caused Martinelli to consider moving his company, which placed Watsonville on the global map, out of the city. But local officials have since urged him to stay.
“We definitely feel that the city appreciates us and wants to keep us in the community, even offering to provide us with fluoride-free water,” says Martinelli. “But we’re not interested in being a special case with a separate hook up. That would just cause backlash from residents and other businesses.”
Surprisingly, Martinelli’s is one of the only major companies in Watsonville that relies on city water. Del Mar Food Products has their own well and so did Smuckers and Birds Eye Foods, Inc.
Losing Martinelli’s as a water consumer, when the company’s annual water expenses exceed $100,000 per year, is a huge risk for the city that is already facing a $5 million deficit. But considering that Watsonville’s newly adopted contract with the California Dental Association Foundation ensures that they will fund the fluoridation systems, operating and maintenance for the next two years, they may be able to cushion the blow.
Much of the buzz surrounding the September decision to fluoridate appears to have died down—including the threat to fight the law all the way to the Supreme Court—but Martinelli remains firm in his position that city residents should not be exposed to it.
“Fluoride is not an essential nutrient for the body,” he says. “And while most people agree that it works when applied topically, there are no tests to prove that it reduces tooth decay when ingested—in fact, it’s been linked to osteoporosis and cancer, and it’s on the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment ‘watch list’ of Prop 65 chemicals.”
The biggest problem, according to Martinelli, is that few people or small businesses have the money and resources to opt out of fluoridation even if they want to.
“This was not a vote against Martinelli’s,” he says. “But Watsonville could have at least driven a hard bargain instead of giving the foundation what they wanted.”