Summary of eRumor:
A BBC watchdog investigation found fecal bacteria, or feces, in iced coffee drinks from Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Caffe Nero.
Rumors about an investigation that found fecal bacteria in Starbucks drinks are technically true — but that’s not necessarily uncommon, and misleading claims about feces in Starbucks drinks have created false panic.
The watchdog report was published by the BBC on June 28, 2o17, under the headline, “Faecal bacteria ‘in ice in Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero.” The investigation tested ice coffee samples from the United Kingdom’s biggest coffee franchises — Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Caffe Nero — and found varying levels of fecal bacteria in all of them:
Expert Tony Lewis said the levels found were “concerning”.
“These should not be present at any level – never mind the significant numbers found,” he added.
Cleanliness of tables, trays and high chairs at the chains was also tested at 30 branches.
Seven out of 10 samples of Costa ice were found to be contaminated with bacteria found in faeces.
At both Starbucks and Caffe Nero, three out of 10 samples tested contained the bacteria known as faecal coliforms.
The report quickly circulated on social media, and rumors about feces in Starbucks drinks spread across the world. Critics of Starbucks even tied the coffee chain’s stance on refugees and immigration to the fecal bacteria found in Starbucks drinks:
The BBC’s investigation into fecal matter in Starbucks drinks has a number of problems, for readers in the U.S. in particular. First, the claim that bacteria found in feces should “not be present at any level” isn’t necessarily accurate, according to the FDA. And a second issue is that the report doesn’t provide specific data on how much fecal bacteria was found in Starbucks drinks.
The FDA has published a “Defect Levels Handbook” that outlines allowable limits for environmental contaminants in food and beverages, including coffee beans. Among those allowable contaminants is “Mammalian excreta,” a scientific term for poop that would undoubtedly include the broader term “fecal bacteria.” It’s not clear whether the BBC report found fecal bacteria in Starbucks drinks exceeded the FDA’s allowable limit because the report didn’t publish information about specific bacteria levels.
The BBC investigation also overlooks the fact that microbiologists have warned that the world is literally “covered in poop,” or, at least, fecal particles. In 2015, a report went viral that men’s beards were covered in fecal matter. The report, which is very similar to the one about feces in Starbucks drinks, was condemned as misleading by microbiologist Phillip Tierno, the author of “The Secret Life of Germs.” At the time, Tierno explained to New York Magazine that “We, as a society, are literally bathed in feces. Wherever a man touches, there are feces and fecal organisms present.”
So, the rumor about feces in Starbucks drinks, like all similar rumors, should be taken with a grain of sand. While it’s true that fecal bacteria are present in everything (including food and drinks), that’s not unusual. Problems arise when fecal bacteria exceed levels that are safe for human consumption, and there’s no indication that that was the case in the BBC investigation that found feces in Starbucks drinks. Given all that, we’re calling this one “truth” but “misleading.”
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