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Science is here to ruin your summer

Mike Pomranz
May 09, 2018

Look, consuming feces isn’t the end of the world. Granted, eating literal poop is unsettling for many reasons beyond the fact that it can make you sick, but in general, consuming trace amounts of feces is unlikely to make you seriously ill. In fact, the Illinois Poison Center goes so far as to call poop “minimally toxic.”

Of course, that being said, it's still gross. As a result, this headline run by the BBC earlier this week isn’t the kind of thing you ever want to see: “Faecal bacteria found in coffee shop ice after random checks.”

Yes, the Welsh Food Microbiological Forum recently announced the results of four months of testing conducted on coffee shop ice across Wales last year—164 samples in all from both chain and independent location—and upsettingly, “almost a quarter” of them contained fecal bacteria.

If you’re thinking, Well, I’ll just avoid ordering any iced coffee in Wales then. It’s not like it’s that hot there anyway, know that these tests were a follow-up to a BBC investigation from last year that found a similar bacteria issue at three of the UK’s largest coffee chains. To put it another way, this problem doesn’t appear to be isolated to one area. In fact, the Forum said that all the offending shops found in Wales have since been visited by food safety officials, so Wales actually might be one of the safest places to order iced coffee right now.

According to Forum chairman Paul Ellis, “Issues identified as contributing to poor results were mainly related to inadequate cleaning and maintenance procedures of the ice machine, poor personal hygiene practices and inadequate storage of ice scoops.” However, as an additional unsettling side note, he also said little correction existed between the results of his organization’s tests and a coffee shop’s sanitary inspection rating. “Poor quality results did not appear to be related to poor food hygiene ratings of the premises, which highlights the importance of sampling surveys to identify hidden food safety risks.” And here you thought those grades out front of a restaurant meant something.

But apparently, there could be a silver-lining. After last year’s BBC investigation, the site Life Science published an article suggesting that these kinds of tests can sometime produce confusing results. Speaking with Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and an associate professor at North Carolina State University, he said that the bacteria known as “fecal coliform” that are typically being searched for in these kinds of studies are a large group of bacteria that certainly can be found in human waste but can also be found from other natural sources—meaning fecal bacteria doesn’t necessarily mean poop coffee.

Additionally, though finding fecal coliform can indicate the potential for illness, it certainly doesn’t guarantee it. “Bacteria is everywhere, and if you look for it, you're going to find it,” Chapman told the site. So basically, the fecal bacteria you don’t know about might still hurt you, but not necessarily enough to make it worth worrying about.

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