Tempest in a Teapot

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Media

Where are those tea-heaving Boston patriots when you need them? Iced tea around the country is turning up deadly and the best that can said about it is that the British — already beset by "mad cow disease" — don’t have to worry about it since they don’t like iced tea anyway. Well, actually no one has died from the tea. Actually, no one has even gotten sick from it. But that hasn’t stopped the media from using such sound-bite headlines as "Killer Tea" and "Bad Brew." Nor has it stopped major chains such as Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Boston Market, Blimpie, and Taco Bell from dropping iced tea from their menus. This tempest in a teapot began back in the summer of 1994 when a restaurant customer in Cincinnati asked the local health department to test some tea with an "off" odor that had been served him at a restaurant. The Cincinnati Health Department ran a fecal coliform test and then ran out to 20 other restaurants, rounded up their iced tea, and tested it all. It found a modest level of fecal coliform bacteria. E. coli

Coliform in a water supply is a sign of possible harmful contamination, including the sometimes deadly bacteria E. coli, which caused the Jack in the Box deaths (from eating undercooked beef) three years ago. But tea isn’t water; it comes from a plant and the leaves of that plant are naturally exposed to fecal bacteria from droppings of birds and other animals. Bacteria has always been in tea isn’t a warning sign of anything. Nonetheless, a year later the Health Department released the names of the restaurants to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Since "enquiring minds want to know" the Enquirer ran a story titled "Iced Tea Worse than River," purportedly showing that "contamination is severe" in restaurant tea. From Ohio the story spread to Kentucky, Georgia, and other states. Television station after station went out to local restaurants and brought back their iced tea for testing, and each reported in breathless horror that all or virtually all of the samples contained bacteria. It apparently didn’t occur or matter to them that if the tea were harmful there would have been a steady stream of sickened customers. In fact, deaths and illnesses of the iced tea epidemic continued to stand at zero. Finally, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) felt compelled to act, issuing an advisory stating, "Tea is a beverage with little history of disease transmission," and "At present, no outbreaks of infection have been reported to CDC that were clearly associated with the consumption of tea." No outbreaks ever, out of nearly 10,000 investigations of food-borne illness over the past decade. The CDC did take the opportunity to provide appropriate directions on safely brewing tea. But this didn’t satisfy the Associated Press (AP), which labeled the advisory a "warning" and asserted it was based on tests indicating "high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which can cause stomach upset and diarrhea." And still nobody had gotten sick from drinking tea. AP’s report led to more than 140 news segments, almost all alarming. "Along with what makes your tea so tasty, you could be getting a strong dose of some nasty bacteria that could make you sick," a Miami/Ft. Lauderdale TV reporter warned. A Tampa/St. Petersburg station declared, "You might be drinking danger and not even know it." A Los Angeles station consulted the expertise of the person on the street. It quoted one iced tea drinker as being "shocked" while another said, "I think it’s outrageous." Meanwhile CNN co-anchor Katherine Calloway punctuated a news segment by saying, "I don’t think I’ll ever order iced tea in a restaurant again." And still nobody had gotten sick from drinking tea. Some stations interviewed "experts" until they found somebody to agree with them. "If one [bacterium] is present, it’s too much," a University of Texas School of Public professor told a Houston station. And still nobody had gotten sick from drinking tea. By February, the Wendy’s chain had capitulated to the media-generated fear, suspending sales of the terrifying tea. Perish the thought that the chain that pioneered a burger with three quarter-pound slabs of artery-choking, obesity-causing beef would sell its customers something that was bad for them. I went to a Wendy’s last night. Virtually every food served is guaranteed to push you towards a quadruple-bypass. You can feel your arteries harden just scanning the menu. They ought to have a team of paramedics with a heart resuscitator standing by for anyone who orders the Big Bacon Classic Combo. But iced tea remains banned. And still nobody has gotten sick from drinking tea. Other fast-food chains are switching to individual bags of tea, which will contain the same bacteria but, hey, it’s not safety but the appearance of safety that counts, right? I only wish I owned lots of stock in a soda pop company right now.