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Starbucks, Costa, and Caffe Nero were each found to have varying levels of bacteria in their ice after researchers in the U.K. in the took samples from ten locations of each chain. The watchdog group found seven of 10 samples tested from Costa and three of 10 samples from Starbucks came up positive for “faecal coliforms,” which are “opportunistic pathogens – the source of human disease,” according to Tony Lewis of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
He said the samples were “concerning,” adding that “”These should not be present at any level – never mind the significant numbers found.”
According to Rob Kingsley, a researcher and expert in foodborne pathogens for Quadram Institute Bioscience, the findings could actually indicate even more troubling hygienic issues. The Guardian reported:
“‘Coliforms are an indicator of faecal contamination which means that essentially anything which is in faeces could be in that ice,’ he said, meaning other, more dangerous bacteria could be present. ‘It is an indicator that somewhere there has been some kind of breakdown in hygiene or the source of the water used for this ice.’”
All three companies said they are taking the findings seriously and have initiated internal investigations to test the sanitary conditions at their chains. Additionally, Costa said it had “updated its ice-handling guidelines and was in the process of introducing new ice equipment storage,” the BBC reported.
Margarita Gomez Escalada, who led the investigation for the BBC, is a microbiologist and senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. She emphasized the degree of contamination, explaining that “The levels allowed by law of bacteria in tap water are super low, so we would find say maybe 10 microorganisms per millilitre. We found hundreds per millilitre.”
She explained, as summarized by the Guardian, that “it was most likely that ice was contaminated by being touched by unclean hands,” but that “ice machines and ice buckets might have compounded the issue if they were not properly cleaned.”
Nevertheless, Gomez Escalada cautioned the public against panicking. “Given that there are tens of thousands of coffee shops around the UK, we have to put this into context,” she said. “The samples that the BBC have got indicate a problem, or problems, in respect to the Costa and the Caffè Nero and the Starbucks that they sampled – but at the end of the day the public should not panic about this. You can’t generalise from the small sample size that we have got here.”
Lewis also cautioned against panicking, while Kingsley advised consumers to exercise discretion. “I would certainly think twice about eating something which may contain faecal contamination at that level, where it is detectable,” he said.
Last year in the U.K., an investigation found fecal bacteria in the ice at a Birmingham KFC, and at that time, Starbucks, Costa, and Caffe Nero came up clean. Similar findings have emerged in restaurants in the United States in recent years.