Made-for-TV news: Soda Fountains Squirt Fecal Bacteria

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Some news organizations are going to give top priority to a little study in this month’s International Journal of Food Microbiology that found bacteria in soda fountain machines.

The CBS Early Show trotted out one of its physician-reporters, Dr. Alanna Levine, to talk about the study. It’s almost difficult to hear her over the noise of the soda fountain next to her. Sound contamination as well?

But there was none of the context that appeared on, for example. Excerpt:

“Wherever man is there will be representation of feces,” said Philip Tierno, director of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center.

“We’re basically bathed in feces as a society,” he said.

Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona was “not too surprised” to learn coliform bacteria were found in soda fountain machines either.

“We’ve seen it with drinking water dispensing machines where customers fill up jugs of water,” said Gerba. “You see it anytime you have something where people can touch the dispenser.”

Based on some of the online comments I’ve read, some people are sick of these “you’re going to get sick” stories. Here is some of the wisdom of the crowds in comments following the story on one site:

• “I am so sick of hearing these ‘breaking stories’ about how such-and-such product has – GASP – bacteria in it. There was even something on TV the other day about how your shower head has bacteria in it, so you shouldn’t put your face directly under it. EVERYTHING has bacteria in it/on it/around it, including our bodies. We’ve become such a wimpy Purell-dependent society and it makes me angry! Our immune systems are equipped to handle 99.9999% of the stuff we throw at them, because we’ve evolved with bacteria around us since the beginning of life!”

• “Study: the human mouth has millions of bacteria in it.

Study: run for cover, THE SKY IS FALLING, THE SKY IS FALLING.”

• “Where are all the sick/dead soda drinkers?”

And do you think that CBS and other news organizations will now start reporting studies from the International Journal of Food Microbiology each month? There were other interesting-sounding articles in this same issue, such as:

• A contribution to the alternative method to preserve foods without using chemical preservatives

• Farm-to-fork characterization of Escherichia coli associated with feedlot cattle with a known history of antimicrobial use

But I guess it’s hard to beat poop in your soda on network morning TV! Put it right alongside TV sweeps period pieces on hotel cleanliness (bed bugs, air conditioning bacteria, stains on bed cover, drinking glass sanitization, etc.)

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January 9, 2010 at 6:30 pm

As we seem to be reeling from the H1N1 flu outbreak and all the fear tactics used in the media to keep it a “hot” issue, I can understand why many people would treat this study’s findings as nothing but yet another bug scare report.
But take a look at FDA’S regulation on bottled water here
“ Bottled water containing E. coli will be considered adulterated, and source water containing E. coli will not be considered to be of a safe, sanitary quality and will be prohibited from use in the production of bottled water. FDA is also requiring that, before a bottler can use source water from a source that has tested positive for E. coli, the bottler must take appropriate measures to rectify or eliminate the cause of E. coli contamination of that source, and that the bottler must keep records of such actions. “
Contrary to the statements made by many that we are surrounded by bugs, it is a different story when they get inside our gut. There seems to be a consensus with the FDA that certain bugs like E .coli SHOULD NOT be in anything we consume.
This is why I believe this study is a wake up call for public health officials. One of the germs isolated from soda fountains in this study was E .coli. Yes it is a organism found in feces ,but deadly strains of the bacteria is responsible for bloody diarrhoea , damage to the kidneys and even death.
You are correct in asking where the sick from the soda fountain are , but the point is (under the CDC and FDA’S microbiological regulation) that the presence of E coli under food regulation basically tells us that other pathogenic bugs can be present. From Salmonella to the enteropathogenic strains of E .coli the list could go on.
IF you are curious just google the havoc done by such pathogenic microbes. One example close to home is the Walkerton outbreak that killed many . The source ,of course, was a deadly strain of E coli in water.
The CDC also has a listing of E .coli contaminated cases every year. Again not every food you eat will make you die, but this matters for those whose immune system is already weak. Moreover, the bugs isolated from the soda machines were found to be resistant to several antibiotics! I don’t think tossing this study as garbage is the solution to improve the health of the public.
IF bottle water companies and water sanitation departments have to adhere to strict guidelines in order to protect public health, why should food chains treat this finding with complacency? I cannot help but wonder if cutting costs to revamp soda fountains more regularly at the cost of public health would really make a good pay off in the end?


January 10, 2010 at 7:26 am

The interesting assumption above is that the zero tolerance standard of public health guidelines is an evidence-based standard derived solely for the purpose of protecting the public health.
One can just imagine the Assistant Secretary charged with oversight of the committee developing those standards imagining the Congressional reaction to a FDA rule that allows any level above zero…
Outside of the political process, the correction response to too much is usually not none.

Andrew Holtz

January 10, 2010 at 12:06 pm

You ask: “Where are all the sick/dead soda drinkers?”
They are all around us… sick and dying from obesity-related diseases.
The point that the purveyors of scare-stories miss is that we can never be free of risk. All we can do is rationally evaluate the risks and then determine the wisest responses.
For the specific example of soda fountains, we have:
1) A tiny risk of picking up a bug left by another users… which is probably no greater than the risk we all experience every day just by going out in public;
2) A substantial and well-documented increased risk of becoming overweight or obese from the whopping calories in sodas.
So by all means… shun the soda fountain… but do it to avoid the real risk, not the “bogeyman” threat waved about by those who seek attention (and ratings) with scare tactics. And remember who the fright-mongers are… so tomorrow you can seek your information and entertainment from someone else.


January 13, 2010 at 10:49 pm

I’m not sure if you are somehow inferring that food chains are not involved in the political process. Food chains are not absolved from regulations to uphold public health. In fact, food inspection officers do enforce safety regulations on food franchises. this is not an assumption, if it were, managers at eateries wouldn’t shudder in fear to keep things as hygienic as possible, hoping to prevent shut downs enforced by the FDA. If you don’t believe me, just ask an employee at any fast food joint.
My main concern is walking into a fast food joint, to find a bottle of water(that has to meet stringent safety regulations), while having the option to get the same drink from a machine (possibly infested with pathogens). It simply astounds me that congressional reaction has been quite complacent in allowing such lopsided guidelines to thrive at the cost of our safety.