Sun Tea Winner (Plus a Rant About Information Drift)

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it seems that the articles are a combination of data summaries from the CDC’s Foodborn Outbreak Surveillance System, unpublished information from the Tea Association of the USA, and a non-sourced story about people getting sick.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!

10 thoughts on “Sun Tea Winner (Plus a Rant About Information Drift)”

  1. Thank you for this. I am firm believer in research, research, research and check your facts before you claim it is truth. Also, don’t combine sources together. Cite each one separately and in context. Loved your blog/rant.

  2. Awesome post Tea Geek! 很有意思. I’m one (of millions) who has grown up on sun tea. Even when we lived in TX, my mom never used sugar, sometime she would brew a herbal blend but usually it was black tea from teabags. Because I drank so much of it and seen so many others drinking it I’ve always found it hard to believe that it is unsafe.

    I remember making a 3 part vow to myself 7 years ago (around the time an otherwise smart young man told me that puer tea was grown in a cave).
    1. I will not believe anything tea related until I’ve seen it with my own eyes, or heard it from a trusted mentor. 2. I will never make any hard claims about tea. 3. I will always remain open to new tea information gathered through scientific research, even if it contradicts something I previously believed.

  3. Thanks for the link Tea Geek! My personal connections often come in handy when I’m looking for solid and reliable information. If there’s anything you need or have questions about, let me know. I’ll see if I can get you the answers you need.

    In the meantime, I’m enjoying your blog, and hop you’re enjoying mine as well!

  4. If you do a bit of googling, you find that Alcaligenes aren’t generally known as pathogens. The strain is usually associated with the cause ‘ropey milk’ spoilage, and it can grow on the nitrogen-source amino acids commonly found in teas (http://jb.asm.org/cgi/content/abstract/89/6/1521). The isolate studied in this report doesn’t appear to use glucose or lactose as a carbon source. Could it cause teas to look cloudy? Maybe? Could it grow in sun-brewed tea? Maybe. It likes cooler temperatures, like you would find in cooled milk or groundwater in a well, for instance.

    Well, here’s the thing – tea is naturally antibacterial (In vitro Studies on the Interaction of Tea with Antimicrobial Agent, 2007 Internat. J Trop Med. http://www.medwelljournals.com/fulltext/ijtm/2007/63-67.pdf). I think your water would have to be very contaminated to start, because the normal tap water usually doesn’t have enough active pathogens to cause this growth.

    But this isn’t a normal year, is it? We’ve had unusually cool and wet conditions in much of the US. That means ‘lclouds’ and that suggests that ‘sterilizing’ quality of sunlight may not be effective in inhibiting microbial growth. I doubt that Alcaligenes sp. (the genus was recently renamed Ralstonia, by the way) are the culprits in sun tea contamination that poses a potential health threat. It’s more likely to be a respiratory or GI pathogen introduced by improper sanitary measures in preparing ‘sun tea’. Most pathogens aren’t psychrophiles (cold-tolerant), they’re mesophiles. They like warmer conditions for growth.

    As an applied environmental micro specialist , I recommend against making sun tea. Use that fancy-dance glass tea pot that you bought a while ago when the Tea Nation was in the grip of ‘flower tea fever’. Makes awesome cold-brewed tea and while your refrig isn’t sterile, if you use safe hygiene measures in preparing your tea, keep it covered, and consume it within 48 hours of cold-brewing, it should stay clear and relatively free of bothersome bugs.

  5. I have a copy of Pat Kendall’s article and would be happy to share it with you. I know Pat, and asked her for a copy, along with any references she could find, so I could make them available to you. She was happy to oblige. Since the article is so old, there are no online copies of it. The references include an issue of Food Protection Report from January 1996, a letter from the City of Cincinnati Food Protection Unit from August 1995, and a memorandum from the Consumer Protection Division of the Colorado Dept. of Health from January 1996.

    I don’t find her original article all that alarming. Dietitians as a group tend to be cautious in their recommendations to the public, and she does “discourage” making sun tea, just to be on the safe side, even though she points out that “tea is a beverage with little history of disease transmission.” I suspect that the underlying rationale for this advice against sun tea is based upon the FDA’s recommended food safety guidelines for retail establishments, which states that there is a “danger zone” for food of 41 degrees F to 135 degrees F, the temperature range that allows bacteria growth. The longer a food spends in this danger zone, and the more often the food passes through this danger zone, the greater the risk of potential bacterial contamination.

    Anyway, if you’d like to see more of these documents, please let me know. Keep up the good work! — Lori

  6. Thanks for the research and article. Just before I found this page, I called of the Tea Association of the USA. Its president, Joe Simrany, told me that CDC’s recommendation of keeping iced tea no more than 8 hours is an “ultraconservative” guideline intended for food-service use. At home, he recommends using it within 24 hours. Over time, he says, the taste and the health benefits deteriorate.

  7. Linda, I’d be interested to see something actually from the CDC on that. It sounds like more of the same information that turned out to be just misquoting of misquoting of inaccurate information. I’ve come across a number of inaccurate “facts” from the Tea Association of America, so if Mr. Simrany gave you web links, citations, or other references to CDC sources, I’d love to see them.

  8. I found this discussion because I have noticed a stringy substance in my Prince of Peace Green Jasmine, made in the sun, tea when it is left overnight. It doesn’t look appealing, so I don’t look at it. I just drink it all down. I have a touch of OCD and the best way to defeat is to face my fears (the irrational ones..like sun tea). So far, haen’t gotten sick, and this brand of tea is one of my favorites. It’s amazing how innocuous “official” statements can lead to ridiculous, widely accepted conclusions. We all want to be safe and secure all the time. Get over it. Not happening.

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