Seems like the reasons to not eat at fast food restaurants just keep on piling up. We've heard all about the unseemly practices that go into obtaining their meats and innumerable other horrors. But now, let's look at the quality of the soda fountains--another staple of the fast food experience. A recent study has revealed that a full 48% of soda fountains at fast food restaurants contain coliform bacteria--a bacteria that commonly grows in feces. Oh, and 11% contained E. Coli, too.
The study was done by a team of microbiologists at Hollins University, and the findings were just published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology
Coliform bacteria was detected in 48% of the beverages and 20% had a heterotrophic plate count greater than 500 cfu/ml. [...] More than 11% of the beverages analyzed contained Escherichia coli [E. Coli] and over 17% contained Chryseobacterium meningosepticum. Other opportunistic pathogenic microorganisms isolated from the beverages included species of Klebsiella, Staphylococcus, Stenotrophomonas, Candida, and Serratia. Most of the identified bacteria showed resistance to one or more of the 11 antibiotics tested.
That's right--not only do soda fountains contain bacteria that originated in poop and potentially dangerous amounts of E. Coli, but they've become resistant to antibiotics as well. Fantastic.
Journalist Tom Lawskawy, who broke news of the study, points out, however, that the researchers say there's only been one certified outbreak over in the last ten years. And to be clear, coliform bacteria does not only grow in feces, though it commonly does--and the majority of coliform bacteria are not dangerous. But Lawskawy also notes that there's an "awful lot of 'gastric distress' that goes unreported."
Which is undeniably true--how many times can you remember having a meal at a fast food restaurant and inexplicably not feeling so hot afterward? Perhaps our friend the coliform bacteria--you know, the one that grows in feces and that you have something like a 50% chance of ingesting if you drink from fast food soda fountains--has played a part.
Can Fecal Bacteria in Soda Really Make You Sick?
Now, while the whole concept does indeed seem disgusting, it's useful to remember that there is a small amount of coliform bacteria in much of the stuff we drink--it's legal, and safe, in certain percentages in US drinking water. And there's only one strain of E. Coli (O157:H7) that's dangerous, which is why outbreaks attributed to soda fountains are so extremely rare--and why nobody really needs to fear for their lives when going for a refill of Dr. Pepper.
That said, there are still people getting needlessly sick to their stomachs by the poor cleaning practices of fast food joints. As the scientists conclude in their abstract:
These findings suggest that soda fountain machines may harbor persistent communities of potentially pathogenic microorganisms which may contribute to episodic gastric distress in the general population and could pose a more significant health risk to immunocompromised individuals. These findings have important public health implications and signal the need for regulations enforcing hygienic practices associated with these beverage dispensers.