I originally posted about this new study last Friday that reveals the unpleasant presence of fecal bacteria in nearly half of the fountain drinks tested. As noted then:
Tests were conducted on 90 fountain beverages, from both self-service and store-personnel dispensers. 48% of the beverages tested positive for coliform bacteria. The tests revealed the presence of Escherichia Coli in 11% of the samples. Also found were Klebsiella, Staphylococcus, Stenotrophomonas, Candida, and Serratia. Further, a majority of the bacteria tested showed resistance to at least some bacteria.
The study has apparently caught the interest of the public and has drawn continued attention in the media. CNN’s coverage of the study today provides some lessons about some real gaps in our food safety knowledge and responsibility overall.
One striking aspect of the coverage is the knee-jerk, "everything is ok – please quickly go back to business as usual" from industry representatives. From the National Restaurant Association:
"While the results of this study are disconcerting, we feel that it isn’t representative of our industry and that our guests can safely enjoy beverages from dispensers and single-serve containers alike."
Ok, so why is the study not "representative" of the industry? Is there some opposing research that suggests that fountain sodas do not have fecal bacteria? Is there some evidence that the levels of bacteria found by this study are not harmful? We would be better served trying to answer these questions than to blithely instruct consumers to go back to their beverage dispensers.
The American Beverage Association is more strident:
"Fountain beverages are safe. Consumers can rest assured that our industry’s fountain beverages pose no public health risk."
Well, this would be comforting if it was accompanied by some explanation. Again, it would be nice to know the basis (if there is one) for such a statement.
All of this begs the question- assuming this study is in some way representative of a larger phenomenon – are people getting sick from drinking fountain soda? And the answer is we don’t know. We really wouldn’t have much way of knowing, because we don’t track foodborne illness very well.
The CDC has previously estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. each year, but only a fraction of these are reported. Only a few bacterial and viral illnesses must be reported to public health agencies – and that presumes that the pathogen is ever found in the first place. It is likely that a majority of ill people are either never tested for pathogens, or are tested for only a select handful.
So, as this story continues to garner attention from the public, we can only guess as to the whether the findings reflect something of true importance. We don’t have the data to evaluate the potential risk. And, as usual, industry is quick to sound the all clear – with or without a basis to do so.