BBC Watchdog finds faecal contamination in ice and soda water at leading pub chains

Ice and soda served to customers at some of the UK’s leading pub chains has been contaminated with faecal bacteria, an investigation by the BBC’s Watchdog Live has found.

Published 21st Nov 2018
Updated 9 th Aug 2023

The consumer programme’s undercover ‘Swab Mob’ team collected samples of both ice and soda water during visits to five leading pub chains across the country, finding very high levels of bacteria at all five.

Among those bacteria, coliforms, including faecal coliforms – bacteria usually found in the gut and associated with faeces – were present in samples of either ice or soda at all of the chains visited.

Tony Lewis of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, who analysed Watchdog Live’s findings, suggests in the programme that bacteria in such high concentrations, and the presence of coliforms, could indicate failings in cleaning standards - and may even represent a potential risk to health, particularly for people with a weakened immune system.

The programme visited 10 branches each of Harvester, Hungry Horse, JD Wetherspoon, Slug and Lettuce and Marstons’ Two For One chains in October, making 50 visits overall.

Faecal coliforms were found in ice at four of the pubs visited – two branches of JD Wetherspoon, one branch of Two for One and one branch of Hungry Horse.

• Faecal coliforms were found in soda at two branches of Slug and Lettuce and one branch of Harvester.

• Faecal coliforms were also found in ice in two branches of JD Wetherspoon, one branch of Two for One, and one Hungry Horse.

• Very high levels of bacteria classed as ‘too high to count’ were found in the ice in six branches of Hungry Horse, three Slug and Lettuce pubs, two Harvesters.

• Very high levels of bacteria classed as ‘too high to count’ were found in the soda water in three branches of Slug & Lettuce, two branches of Two for One, two Harvester, one Hungry Horse and one JD Wetherspoon pub.

Watchdog Live presenter Nikki Fox, said: “These results are really disappointing. I don’t think most people would expect this type of bacteria to be present in things we’re actually consuming – and certainly not in some of the biggest names in the business.

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"What we’ve found suggests that the procedures all these chains have in place aren’t always being followed at a local level.”

Expert Tony Lewis of CIEH explains in the programme that coliforms and faecal coliforms are likely to have come from human contact, for example dirty hands. The other bacteria found can come from a number of sources, including growth in storage and dispensing systems.

He said: “Ice is like any other food. We consume it, we ingest it, it goes into our stomachs, into our guts, and if it’s loaded up with the wrong type of bacteria then it can make us ill. So that’s why this is a concern. On the basis of the chains that we’ve looked at, industry needs to do better, making sure that their cleanliness is being well managed.”

The findings come almost eighteen months after Watchdog Live found traces of faecal bacteria present in the ice at high street coffee shops.

The Big Chains respond

A spokesperson for Slug & Lettuce said: “Slug & Lettuce takes hygiene standards extremely seriously having excellent average 4.9/5 star EHO food hygiene ratings across all sites tested. We immediately investigated the claims made by Watchdog, commissioned audits, and reiterated our processes to all sites. We would like to reassure our customers of the strict procedures and high standards expected in our bars.”

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While Hungry Horse stated that they take the cleanliness and hygiene of their pubs "very seriously" and that the safety of their customers is a "top priority", they said: "We are disappointed with these findings in a small number of our pubs, especially as nine of the ten pubs visited have the highest 5 star hygiene rating, the other pub has 4 stars and they have all been independently audited in the last four months.

“We have moved quickly to conduct our own investigation and would like to reassure our customers that independent auditors are also revisiting the 10 pubs this week.

"We have ensured all ice equipment and soda dispensers across the Hungry Horse estate have been deep cleaned in addition to our normal cleaning routines and team members have also received updated training on our high standards of hygiene.”

A spokesperson for JD Wetherspoon said: “We take on board the findings of the report. Food safety is of paramount importance within our pubs. Our Food Hygiene Rating Scheme Scores (FHRS) clearly demonstrates this, with 804 of our pubs (around 90 per cent) eligible for the scheme (as it excludes Scotland and the Republic of Ireland) scoring an average 4.97 out of 5, and more than 97 per cent scoring a perfect 5.

“We have strict standard operating policies in relation to our ice machine cleanliness and more generally, ice handling. Dispense equipment used for our soda also follows these policies and this includes sanitising the nozzles on a daily basis.

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“We use a bespoke ice-handling system for transferring our ice – this is a colour coded system of scoops and totes for transferring ice from the ice manufacturing machine to the customer glass. It is designed to avoid any contact between our employee’s hands and the ice and operate in a hygienic manner.”

Harvester (Mitchells and Butlers) said: “The cleanliness and hygiene of our restaurants is of critical importance, as is the welfare of our guests and staff. The restaurants surveyed are all of a high standard as assessed by external inspectors and we want to reassure our guests they should have no concerns about any health risks related to the matters referred to in this programme.”

• The full investigation into ice and soda served in leading pub chains can be seen on Watchdog Live, tonight at 8pm on BBC One.

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Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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