A BBC investigation has discovered that the fizzy drinks – that’s soda to us Americans – served from dispensers in cinema chain locations contain worrying levels of bacteria.
Researchers from the network’s Watchdog series took samples of drinks and ice from soda fountains at 10 branches each of Cineworld, Odeon, and Vue across the UK and sent them to a laboratory at the London Metropolitan University.
According to the program’s accompanying article, drinks from seven branches were filled with unacceptable bacteria levels – defined as more than 1,000 units of bacteria per milliliter (0.03 ounce) of liquid. Four were from Cineworld locations, of which one drink had 70 times the acceptable level; one from a Vue contained 100 times the acceptable level, and one of the two contaminated Odeon drinks was 10,000 times over.
Ice from nine locations also contained unacceptable levels of bacteria: Four from Cineworld, two from Vue, and three from Odeon. Unsurprisingly, the ice from the Odeon location with the worst soda was also packing a bacterial concentration 10,000 times over, likely because the water that makes the ice is the same that mixes with the fizzy drink syrup in the dispenser.
"That's the highest I've seen,” Tony Lewis, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, told the BBC. “And that is an indicator of equipment not being kept clean. That's a worry."
As alarming as this may sound, the details shared in the report are disappointingly scarce. For instance, it notes that “traces of salmonella” were identified in two Odeon drinks, but does not elaborate on whether the amount was high enough to be of concern, or which of the two types of Salmonella the bacteria belonged to. The type that can spread to a human host from contaminated food sources must be ingested in large quantities to cause gastrointestinal disease – aka food poisoning – in a healthy adult.
Furthermore, the logic behind the 1,000 units per milliliter “acceptable level” is not explained. Bacteria are, quite literally, lurking everywhere already; exposure to most strains is either harmless, imperceptible, or actually beneficial to our health.
And because the vast majority of bacteria species are not pathogenic to humans, there is no across-the-board acceptable cut-off point for bacterial concentration. Government standards for bacterial contamination in drinking water in the United States and the United Kingdom are only set for coliform bacteria – a large group that includes Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and other infamous names such as dysentery-causing Shigella – and several other specific strains known to infect people.
Simply put, the evidence presented is not enough to warrant smuggling sealed beverages into your local theatre – unless, of course, you’re trying to get around those gouging prices.
The full investigation was shared on the May 9 episode of Watchdog on BBC One, though the broadcast does not appear to be online yet.