The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that all drinking water samples test negative for E. coli. However, a study published in the January issue of International Journal of Food Microbiology revealed that "the large number of beverages and soda fountain machines containing E. coli is still of considerable concern... and suggests that more pathogenic strains of bacteria could persist and thrive in soda fountain machines if introduced."
Researchers also detected antibiotic-resistant microbes and E. coli in the soda samples.
Renee Godard, lead author of the study and a professor of biology and environmental studies at Hollins University, a private liberal arts college in Roanoke, acquired 90 beverages of three types (sugar soda, diet soda, water) from 30 fast food restaurants in southern Virginia.
Nearly half of the 90 beverages from both self-service and employee-dispensed machines—48 percent—tested positive for coliform bacteria. Eleven percent tested positive for E. coli and 17 percent contained Chryseobacterium meningosepticum, which can sicken newborns or adults with weakened immune systems.
At this point it's unclear how the beverages became contaminated. "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."
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Various associations have also weighed in on the story. The National Restaurant Association commented, "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."
"Fountain beverages are safe," added a spokesperson from the American Beverage Association, which represents hundreds of beverage producers, distributors, and franchise companies. "Consumers can rest assured that our industry's fountain beverages pose no public health risk. Importantly, our industry meets, and often exceeds, all government health standards in bringing its products to market."