You expect the drink you get from a soda fountain to contain tons of sugar (unless it's diet), artificial flavorings, carbonation and chemicals. What you don't expect is fecal matter. But perhaps you should.
According to a study published in the January issue of International Journal of Food Microbiology, nearly half of the 90 beverages from soda fountain machines in one area in Virginia tested positive for coliform bacteria -- which could indicate possible fecal contamination. Researchers also detected antibiotic-resistant microbes and E.coli in the soda samples.
"Certainly we come in contact with bacteria all the time," Renee Godard, lead author of the study and professor of biology and environmental studies at Hollins University in Virginia. "It's simply that some bacteria may potentially cause some disease or gastrointestinal distress. One thing we hesitate with is that people get afraid of bacteria. Many of them are benign or helpful, but certainly, I don't want E.coli in my beverage."
Researchers acquired 90 beverages of three types, (sugar soda, diet soda, water) from 30 fast food restaurants in a 22-mile area near Roanoke, in southern Virginia. They found that 48 percent of beverages obtained from soda fountains contained coliform bacteria, 11 percent contained E. coli (which are mostly harmless, but some can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia), and 17 percent had Chryseobacterium meningosepticum (which could sicken newborns or adults with weakened immune systems).
It's not clear how the bacteria got inside the beverage machines. "It could be from dispensing with a hand that wasn't clean or using wet rags to wipe down the machine," Godard said. "We haven't done the work to really identify those potential sources and how these bacteria get established."
The beverage industry is going to great lengths to say its product is safe.
Manitowoc Foodservice, one of the leading manufacturers of ice and beverage equipment, did not have the opportunity to review the study, but released this statement in response to questions from CNN:
"We emphasize in our product support material proper methods for and the importance of frequent, thorough cleaning and sanitizing of foodservice equipment. In food equipment as in any environment where microorganisms can occur naturally or be spread by contact, it is essential to follow proven steps for cleaning and sanitizing."
The National Restaurant Association, a business association for the restaurant industry, e-mailed this statement in response to the findings: "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."
Meanwhile, the American Beverage Association made this statement:"Fountain beverages are safe. Consumers can rest assured that our industry's fountain beverages pose no public health risk."