This week, a BBC Watchdog investigation turned up some news that made many consumers begin to second guess their regular morning drink orders: Three out of 10 samples of Starbucks iced drinks contained fecal bacteria.
It’s not the kind of news any frequent frappuccino drinker wants to hear, but it’s not something that should necessarily induce widespread panic, either.
BBC investigators obtained samples of iced water from 10 Starbucks coffee shops the United Kingdom, and three of those samples tested positive for fecal coliform bacteria. That’s not bacteria people want to be consuming, but it’s not necessarily guaranteed to cause disease.
“Some of the bacteria we identified were actually what we call opportunistic pathogens, which are bacteria that to healthy people do not often cause disease, but they cause disease to people [whose] immunity is reduced,” Margarita Gomez Escalada, a microbiologist at Leeds Beckett University who helped conduct the study, told the Guardian.
She said the bacteria could have been introduced by unclean hands or improperly cleaned ice machines, and said the amount of bacteria found “just increases the risk” of getting sick.
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While that news certainly isn’t appetizing, you might not need to forgo your daily iced latte.
First of all, the investigation results prompted an internal investigation by Starbucks, and a representative told the BBC that the company takes hygiene “extremely seriously.” Health concerns usually prompt swift and thorough responses from companies, and the three cafés investigated by the BBC—Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Caffè Nero—all said they would be launching investigations or introducing new ice-handling processes.
The second thing to note is that the BBC study was, scientifically speaking, based on a fairly small sample size. All we can definitively say is that three Starbucks shops tested positive for fecal coliform bacteria, and a look into only 10 Starbucks locations makes it hard to generalize to all of the chain’s shops across the United Kingdom—let alone to all Starbucks shops around the world.
“It is not something to panic over,” Tony Lewis, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, told the Guardian. He said companies would be taking the health concerns seriously, but that it was impossible to generalize the results too broadly.
Finally, it’s also worth mentioning that no, a finding of fecal coliform bacteria does not necessarily mean that there is actual feces in your favorite frappuccino. Fecal coliform includes a group of bacteria that can come from a large number of sources, including fruit and vegetables (not just feces), and tests can often lead to false positives or pick up on harmless or dead bacteria (which can’t make you sick).
“Bacteria is everywhere, and if you look for it, you’re going to find it,” Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University, told LiveScience.
So for now, you can probably keep enjoying your iced coffees and rest assured that the problem will likely be dealt with promptly. If reports of E. coli or harmful bacteria begin showing up in investigations, then there might be a little more cause for concern—but for now, there’s no real need to swear off certain chains.