The warnings echoed across the country, from one local television station to the next.
"You might be drinking danger and not even know it," said Frank Robertson of WTVT in Tampa.
"Your iced tea could be a witch's brew of bacterial contamination," said Asa Aarons of WNBC in New York.
"It would be like drinking from a sewer," said Neill McNeill of WGHP in North Carolina.
"You could be ordering a glass full of fecal bacteria," said David Jackson of KCAL in Los Angeles.
"It's pretty disgusting bacteria at that," said Michael Tuck of Los Angeles' KCBS.
But many of the reports on dozens of stations, which took off during the February ratings sweeps, considerably overstated what federal health officials say is at worst a minuscule risk. Bacteria occur naturally in tea leaves, said Morris Potter, assistant director for food-borne disease at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and these bacteria "probably aren't going to do anything to me. . . . Drinking this stuff in iced tea is very unlikely to give you gastrointestinal disease."
Many of the reporters described the bacteria as coming from human or animal waste, when in fact there was no proof of that, and scientists say it is of the natural plant variety. And no station was deterred by the lack of actual victims.
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner called it "the story that just will not go away. . . . Over the past 10 years, we've investigated literally tens of thousands of outbreaks of infectious disease due to contaminated food or drink, and in none of those outbreaks did we see any connection between illness and iced tea."
Still, the impact on the $3 billion-a-year iced tea business was immediate. Some tea companies complained of lost sales. Wendy's, Taco Bell, Boston Market and Kentucky Fried Chicken temporarily pulled iced tea from their restaurants or switched to bottled tea. Health departments from Ohio to Georgia issued advisories.
If there was a positive side to the spate of "I-team" investigations and other TV and newspaper reports, it was the spotlighting of inadequate sanitation in some restaurants. The bacteria, harmful or not, thrived in tea that was stored too long in poorly cleaned urns. But Potter says this risk pales next to improper refrigeration or inadequate grill temperatures in restaurants.
To be sure, some journalists included the fine print. On Atlanta's WAGA, Virginia Ellis noted that "there is also some scientific disagreement about how serious a threat this really poses to the public" and interviewed some critics of her findings. On KARE in Minneapolis, Dennis Stauffer cautioned that "we can't say the tea will make you sick." On WUSA in Washington, which tested samples at nine area restaurants, Jan Fox twice noted that the CDC "has never linked iced tea to a serious illness."
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution went a step further with a story headlined "Iced Tea Scare Is Empty Brouhaha."
But on balance, the alarmist tone of many of the stories raises questions about whether the news media can properly calibrate the level of their reporting on complex scientific subjects. In an age of health warnings about everything from caffeine to Chinese food, a steady drumbeat of such reports can have a numbing effect.
"The press sometimes causes more alarm than warranted," said Nancy Cohen, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts. "People assume that if it's not newsworthy, the press wouldn't bother covering it. We run the risk of having consumers roll their eyes and say, Another scare.' "
The tea saga is also a textbook case of pack journalism, with many local reporters doing the same tests and repeating the same phrases, as if the story had not been done elsewhere.
"It was a case of mistaken identity, and it was very difficult for us to com municate that to the media," said Joseph Simrany, president of the Tea Council of the U.S.A. "They saw our comments as being self-serving and biased. They still went off and running, thinking they had the story of the century."
The great tea scare began in 1994 in Cincinnati, when one restaurant customer complained about a cup of foul-smelling tea. Last summer a survey by the city's health department found high bacteria counts on tea leaves in 19 of 20 restaurants, prompting the agency to issue an advisory on proper boiling and handling of tea.
"Iced Tea Worse Than River," the Cincinnati Enquirer headline said. One water quality expert was quoted as saying, "They are finding numbers we wouldn't recommend swimming in, much less drinking."
"It was a surprising and very new and unheard-of finding coming from our city health department," said Enquirer reporter Tim Bonfield. "We thought it was important to report in detail. We got mixed opinions on the level of risk involved in all this. . . . We tried to be fair and responsible."
Bonfield's initial story noted the "amazing" fact that there were no illnesses linked to the iced tea. But federal health officials say the media's focus on bacteria counts was misleading.
The fecal coliform test is vital for drinking water because it indicates the presence of organisms that can cause disease, Potter said. In fact, the acceptable government standard is zero. But the same test "does not necessarily indicate fecal matter" in tea, Potter said, because the leaves have non-fecal sources of naturally occurring bacteria.
The Food and Drug Administration agreed in a Sept. 20 memo, saying the bacteria in question "are commonly found associated with plants and plant material, and . . . do not necessarily represent fecal contamination."
Such distinctions were often lost as the story made its way to television. In Atlanta, WAGA hired a laboratory that found bacteria in tea from 20 area restaurants. Ellis's three-part series during the November sweeps -- "The Dirt on Iced Tea" -- said the tests had found "a staggering amount of potentially harmful bacteria in a small amount of tea." There was "undercover video" of Ellis buying tea. She stood in front of a local lake, saying that dumping the tea there would force the lake to be closed.
"We take pride in taking time with what we do," Ellis said in an interview. "I think we covered it fairly and thoroughly and -- despite the fact that some people label local TV as hysterical -- with an even tone. . . . It comes down to a cleanliness issue. . . . We didn't say it was going to kill you."
In December, the story was getting national attention. "There's concern about tainted tea," Catherine Callaway said on CNN, using footage from WAGA. "Experts tell us that some iced tea you buy is as bad as drinking out of a sewer," Janice Lieberman said on CNBC, using a report from KPNX in Phoenix.
"Experts say what we found is disgusting," said Lonni Leavitt on KPNX. "Almost all of our samples were full of fecal coliform, a bacteria that comes from human or animal waste."
The resulting publicity prompted the CDC to send an advisory to local health officials. "Finding indicator organisms, such as fecal coliforms, in brewed tea does not mean that the tea is in fact hazardous," the Jan. 10 memo said. "Rather, this indicates a failure in food handling or sanitation, creating a potentially hazardous condition, in which a pathogen could cause disease if it were introduced."
While the transmission of infectious agents was "theoretically possible," the CDC said, "tea is a beverage with little history of disease transmission. At present, no outbreaks have been reported to CDC that were clearly associated with the consumption of tea."
Spokesman Skinner said the memo was "merely to inform state health officials about what we knew," but some in the media treated it as "a national health alert warning," as KCBS put it.
In February, television reporters in New York, Washington, Tampa, Miami, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego and other markets conducted their own tea tests and trumpeted the results. Some used logos such as "Bad Brew." Others confronted restaurant owners with the findings.
"If some of these reports, however overblown, saved one life, they were worth doing," said McNeill of North Carolina's WGHP.
After the report on New York's WNBC -- "a story you'll see only on NewsChannel 4," said anchor Chuck Scarborough -- local outlets of Houlihan's, TGI Friday's, Roy Rogers and Nathan's stopped serving brewed tea.
"I feel we were one of the few stations in the country that reported it responsibly," said WNBC reporter Aarons. "I'd heard of stations dipping iced tea glasses in the toilet, all kinds of crazy, hyperbolic things, killer tea.' We said the problem was not in the tea at all but in the cleanliness. . . . Instead of panicking people, we tried to bring some light."
But some scientists say there was far more heat than light. Microbiologist Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, tested iced tea samples and found what he considers harmless, natural plant bacteria. "This is not a health problem," Doyle said. He says that when he told this to WAGA's Ellis the night before her series aired, "she didn't want to hear that."
Ellis says there is a split between public health officials concerned about the bacterial counts and scientists such as Doyle who pooh-poohed the findings. "The scientific community needs to get together and decide what test should be used," she said.
At the CDC, the episode is viewed as the proverbial tempest in a teapot. "I'm a little ambivalent about this," Potter said. "People have so many things they can worry about."