Too often we only wash our hands of responsibility, says Jane Bradley
On a warm day, with a couple of hours of stuffy train travel ahead of me, a tantalising picture of a gleaming iced coffee on an advertising hoarding lured me in. Automatically, I headed to one of the numerous coffee chains at Edinburgh’s Waverley station and placed my order. It was only when the barista started to whizz up the ice machine that I remembered why I felt a slight sense of foreboding. The faecal bacteria.
A BBC investigation last month found that samples of ice found in drinks at a sample of coffee shops belonging to the Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero chains contained faecal bacteria. That is ‘bits of poo’ to you and me.
A follow-up probe earlier this week found a similar problem in all branches of KFC, McDonalds and Burger King visited by BBC testers for the broadcaster’s Watchdog programme. A similar investigation was carried out by the broadcaster a year ago – with similar results.
While absolutely revolting and enough to make you switch your iced frappucino moccuccino for a boiling hot-nuke-’em-til-they’re-dead espresso forever, it is not actually surprising at all.
Most people do not wash their hands properly when they go to the toilet. It is cool to not care about germs. Why would people who work in coffee shops be any different to the rest of the population?
The chains involved have expressed their shock and promised that they will undergo a deep clean of the ice machines and ensure their staff are trained in food preparation hygiene. For yes, the big companies, the food hygiene inspectors and authorities such as hospitals, schools etc, have policies in place in a bid to prevent this from happening.
It is just that, bar conducting a hand wash check on the exit from the loos - as the dinner ladies used to do at my primary school every day before we ate lunch - it is impossible to implement unless staff show common sense.
How this type of bacteria is spread is simple. Someone goes to the toilet, then they do not wash their hands. They go back to their work as a barista, picking up ice cubes with their bare hands and immediately contaminate your drink. If they have the remnants of a gastro infection - norovirus, rotavirus and the like - you might well become ill after drinking it.
While the investigation also said it was possible that the ice supply, or ice handling equipment, could be the course of the problem, it was most likely that poor hygiene was responsible.
Management can tell workers that they have to follow hygiene rules until they are blue in the face - it will make no difference. Put the fear of god into this lot of staff and next week, there will be a new worker who cannot be bothered to wash his hands - or doesn’t want to miss a day’s work after he has recovered from being ill.
When I lived in Eastern Europe many moons ago, I was faced with a number of what - to me as a westerner at least - seemed to be insane old wives’ tales relating to health.
If you sat between two open windows, you would be subject to the “curant” - a draught which, all by itself, could cause sore throats, headaches, earaches and much worse. If a woman was spotted sitting on a cold, concrete step outside, even in summer - or walked barefoot on a non-carpeted floor inside - someone, often a stranger, would leap up and warn her that she was at risk of “freezing” her ovaries, causing all kinds of fertility problems.
This, of course, all sounds ridiculous to us. Yet, the vast majority of the British population remains staunchly opposed to understanding even the tiniest bit of scientific evidence as to how people actually become ill. We might as well believe in curants or freezing ovaries, so blindly does the general public fail to follow basic hygiene rules.
People get routine bugs, everyone thinks, by chance. I’ve had my bout of the norovirus this year, now it’s time to get a common cold. As if some kind of little illness fairy sprinkles germs around willy-nilly - and whether they land on us or not is entirely down to luck.
Of course, not all germs can be avoided, nor do we want to turn into a nation of obsessive germophobes - but by taking basic steps, we can easily cut the number of nasty illnesses we suffer in an average year. But only if everyone pulls together.
In the office, a pale-faced colleague is lauded for martyr-like behaviour, dragging themselves to work after a particularly nasty virus, still coughing and sneezing all over the place. “I had to come in,” they croak. “I had so much to do, the place couldn’t have coped without me.” Of course, the one extra day of company productivity they saved by cutting short their sick leave is swiftly wiped out many times over when their five desk mates come down with the same bug the following week.
Similarly, my daughter’s nursery regularly allows recently-vomiting children to attend - I’ve heard them being dropped off in the mornings: “Oh, Hector was throwing up all last night, but he’s fine now, so I’ve brought him in,” says many a beaming parent, ushering green-faced Hector through the door as she or he rushes off to a meeting. And despite there being a 48-hour exclusion policy in the small print - that’s 48 hours since the child last had symptoms - the nursery workers welcome Hector with open arms. Then they wonder why they - and other children - fall ill a couple of days later.
When a nasty sickness bug spread through the children and staff recently, nursery management failed to put out a note to parents until three days after it had started - meaning that un-knowing parents who had some alternative means of childcare and did not need to subject their child to the house of plague, exposed them to the bug anyway. Birthday parties were cancelled, entire households went down with it, missing days and days of work. Yet staff and parents alike put it down to “bad luck”.
When I complained to the nursery manager over the way it had been handled, I was told that how a sickness bug spreads was “out of [her] control”.
Whereas in reality, it is very much in their control. If parents were informed immediately that the bug began - and those already affected reminded of the 48-hour rule recommended by NHS Scotland - a number of people who ended up spending the best part of a week languishing in bed need not have done so.
It is just basic common sense. And if people, especially those working with the public, do not start to heed hygiene guidance, we will continue to hear the same annual horror stories of poo in your iced lattes for many years to come. And we don’t want that, do we?