Okay, the entries are in and I’ve picked a winner! There were some very informative entries to the contest from my Don’t Make Iced Tea post, both posted as comments and sent to me as email. So interesting, in fact, that I’m going to do a slight rant about the media and information about tea.
But first, the winner of the $15 shopping spree is Chris Giddings of www.Tea-Guy.com In addition, for their providing of what appear to be the first two articles of the chain reaction I’ll talk about soon, I’m giving an extra $5 “runner-up” credit each to Jason Witt and Kenneth.
Chris’ entry won because it actually included a copy of an email from a CDC employee, sent from a CDC.gov address. This email stated that to his knowledge, there was no “official guidance” on sun tea. It was the only entry that wasn’t someone else reporting on the CDC.
And that’s where it starts sliding into the rant about the media. Most of the other entries were reports of what was said by the CDC, mixed with information from the Tea Association of the USA. Combining everything from all of the entries, it seems that the articles are a combination of data summaries from the CDC’s Foodborn Outbreak Surveillance System, unpublished information from the Tea Association of the USA, and a non-sourced story about people getting sick.
The CDC information basically said that they had no reported outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness clearly tied to iced tea; and that some tests had occasionally shown high levels of “indicator organisms.” In other words, there is theoretical danger, but no evidence that the risk has shown itself in the real world. They stated that the risk was more likely to come from poor food handling practices than from the tea itself.
The Tea Association basically riffed off of this and it was they who suggested not to make sun tea. They also provided the most likely food handling errors that would cause problems.
Now, notice how these two different bits of information, from two distinct sources (a government agency and an industry association), were handled. Hang on for a strange and bumpy ride.
It appears that in February, 1996, Dr. Robert V. Tauxe and Dr. Mitchell L. Cohen, both of the CDC, compiled the information mentioned above in an article for Virginia Epidemiology Bulletin, the earliest place the CDC info and Tea Association info seem to have set foot in the same article. The March/April 2009 issue of Foods and Nutrition Digest from the Cooperative Extension Service of Kansas State Univeristy picked up the story, slightly condensing and summarizing some of the information.
In June 1996, Pat Kendall wrote an article for the Fort Collins Coloradoan called “Bacteria-filled iced tea can cause illness”. I haven’t been able to find a copy of the article, so I can tell neither how the author cited sources nor how faithfully the information was portrayed. However, this article was adapted by the Colorado State University Extension FoodSafe Network in 1999 with a disclaimer.
The Las Vegas Sun runs a story in 2001 referencing both the Coloradoan and the FoodSafe Network. The FoodSafe article was referenced by the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service in June 2003. In the May/June 2004 issue of Yale Health Care: News from the Yale health plan also refers to the FoodSafe adaptation of Kendall’s article in the Coloradoan. The Yale article is referenced by the Hawaii Tea Factory website.
In fact, it seems like everyone started quoting everyone else around this point. Somewhere along the way, the information got added that one of the microbes that might show up in your sun tea to cause problems is alcaligenes viscolactis. I have no idea where that information originally came from, since it was not mentioned in either of the two earliest articles. As far as I can tell it’s accurate insofar as that it’s a common bacteria found in water and can multiply in just the environment found in sun tea. But the CDC doesn’t appear to have a warning about it, either.
Even the typically reliable Snopes.com decided to weigh in on the topic in 2006. It claims the health dangers were warned against by the CDC, and mentions our friend alcaligenes viscolactis. They cite four newspaper articles, none of which I can find online–even searching on the quoted article title and/or author on the individual newspaper websites. Snopes did not cite the CDC. But that didn’t stop at least one blogger from claiming that Snopes had indeed contacted the CDC to confirm the warning. (A side note about the infuriating circular experience about tracking all this information down: the only places I could find references to the Snopes source articles were other people referencing the Snopes article referencing the newspaper articles.)
And there you have it. We started with the CDC saying that there are no recorded tea-born illnesses, but that there’s a theoretical risk in cases of poor food handling. We end with a wildfire of articles all claiming that the CDC is warning that it’s dangerous to make iced tea.
So a word to the wise: While little tea factoids can be interesting and enlightening, it’s always important to track down the sources of that information. Sometimes through multiple layers of sources. You might find that the real story is nothing like what “tea experts” are telling you.
Note: That includes me, too. I used links where I could so you could verify that what I’m saying is so. If you ever find I’ve said something that’s factually incorrect, I want you to call me on it. Tea Geek was founded on the desire to combat the rampant misinformation about tea, regardless of how (or by whom) it is disseminated. Don’t trust me. Don’t trust your local tea shop owner. Don’t trust the lovely tea book with the pretty tea pictures. Verify!