Yesterday was National Iced Tea Day.  

When I was growing up, my mom brewed her iced tea on the front porch in the sun.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls the tea she made “sun tea.”  

iced-tea-featured.jpgIn 1996, the CDC put out a “Memo on Bacterial Contamination of Iced Tea.”  The memo was addressed to state and territorial epidemiologists, and provided information on iced tea safety in response to local and state health department requests for guidelines on preparing and storing iced tea in a manner to reduce bacterial contamination.  

Foodborne pathogens can survive in brewed tea, but for tea brewed at an appropriate temperature–with water hot enough to kill pathogens–the issue of safety is primarily one of storage conditions and ensuring the tea dispenser has been cleaned and disinfected before use.  

The CDC summarized its findings on iced tea safety with the following points:

1. Tea is a beverage with little history of disease transmission. At present, no outbreaks of infection have been reported to CDC that were clearly associated with the consumption of tea.

2. Tea leaves may be contaminated with coliform bacteria. If iced tea is brewed at inadequate temperatures or in an improperly cleaned urn, or if it is stored for too long, it may grow coliform bacteria, most frequently Klebsiella and Enterobacter, and less commonly E. coli. In particular, the faucet of iced tea urns may provide a nidus for bacterial contamination.

3. Food handling errors that lead to the introduction or that encourage the replication of microbial pathogens in brewed tea could theoretically result in human disease.

4. Brewing iced tea at an appropriate temperature in a thoroughly cleaned urn and limiting the time held at room temperature before serving will minimize the theoretical risk of bacterial contamination.

Recommendations for Iced Tea Safety

* Iced tea sould be brewed at 195 F for 3-5 minutes.

* Iced tea should be stored for no longer than 8 hours.

* The tea brewer, storage dispenser, and faucet should be cleaned daily.

The CDC stated that redesigning tea dispensers to be more easily dismantled and cleaned could further reduce the theoretical risk of bacterial contamination of iced tea.

Sun Tea

According to the CDC, “The practice of making ‘sun tea’ by steeping tea bags in a container of water in the sun may be higher theoretical risk than brewing tea at higher temperatures because it provides an environment where bacteria are more likely to survive and multiply.

I’ll have to tell my mom.

  • Lisa

    I am looking for an answer to how long I can hold my brewed iced tea at home, if it is refrigerated soon after brewing and cooling properly, (with cool water and then ice). I see above that it is recommended to keep iced tea no longer than 8 hours, but it does not say the word “refigerated,” so I assume that probably means just sitting out in an urn, like they often do at restaurants.

  • Codger

    I am finding a lot of sources quoting the CDC on this, but I can’t find anywhere where the CDC actually says anything about sun tea. In fact, if you search the phrase “sun tea” on their site, there are no pages.
    I suspect that someone identified the max temp that sun tea achieves, and identified some kind of bacteria that could feasibly survive in water that long. But the bacterial strain cited has very limited pathogenicity and I can’t find even a single report of a person getting sick from sun tea, from the CDC or any other source…
    I’m trained in epidemiology, so I’m not inclined to pooh pooh risk. I just don’t think there’s any good evidence for this one.

    • Steve

      I heard recently that most of the time the lemons are the reason for illnesses. All too often, they are handled, prepared or stored incorrectly, then placed in the iced tea in restaurants, contaminating the tea with e-coli and other bacterias.

  • ephiroll

    Been poisoned by tea at work. I know now the tea urns aren’t cleaned right and it’s something living in the faucet. Not the first time, but probably the worst. Trying to find information on what it could have been caused by, but there’s very little info, and it’s taken me a while of searching just to find this article that gives three potentials to look up. The bad news is that it’s looking like e coli is the answer to my question.

  • Queenpiece

    How long can I have my brewed tea out at room temperature for?

    • Eric West

      same question. did not find an answer. i had my iced tea at warm room temperature for about 4 days and am paranoid about drinking it.

  • Mileaway

    I am 66 years old. I have drank Sun Tea my entire life. Sometimes straight from the Jug and sometimes with/over Ice; sometimes after it’s been stored in the refer for days on end, even a couple of weeks. I have NEVER gotten ill from it. My thought is whatever “would” live and breed in the warm liquid, can’t in the cold liquid. Works for me. I also think the Lemons people use may be the source of their demise. Often they are NOT properly cleaned or sliced with the same knife used for other foods, thereby cross-contaminating.That being said, most of the time it doesn’t last long enough to grow fish so it’s consumed. At times you my find it has survived in the back of the frig for a month or so. (haha) BUT, the rule is if you can’t remember when you made it or if it has a glob of unidentifiable fog living in the bottom of the jug, DON’T DRINK IT!. Pour it out, thoroughly wash and sanitize your Tea Jug and make fresh. Let Common Sense prevail. Tea anyone?

  • Kelly

    How do you make concentrated tea? I have recently begun making iced tea in an effort to replace soda. I go through it pretty fast so being able to have it ready to go would be awesome

  • Mike1268

    I don’t claim to have been ill from drinking moldy tea but I do know that room temperature tea for a week (even Lipton instant tea) will produce all kinds of weird floating goo and black “mung”. Might not be an issue for most people unless they have allergies to molds and fungus.

  • Adam

    Just this week I poured out the jug of brewed ice tea that had been on our counter for a few days. This batch was cut in half with the 2nd half stored in the fridge. The tea left out had developed a “rotten” taste…something wasn’t right. The tea kept in the fridge tasted fine. I’ll no longer leave tea out on the counter. The only reason I left some out was the jug it’s stored in tends to leak around the faucet valve making a mess in the fridge. I’ll stick to a normal pitcher from now on.

  • Carrie Perez

    You CAN get sick from SUN TEA, let me tell you! It isn’t fun and can last for days. Our family’s symptoms include: vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, fatigue or flu-like symptoms. One of my kids even got a fever. We made sun tea on one of the hottest days of the year (in Florida!). The only person who did not get sick was the one person in our family who did not drink the tea. The danger is there for anyone. We are going to make REFRIGERATOR TEA from now on. It is just as healthy (or more healthy) and simply takes a little bit longer than heated/warmed tea.