Coin operated and smart card accessible Vending machines are considered as a convenient mode of retailing consumer products like juices, snacks etc and have become very popular in western countries. However they have not made any dent in the market in India. Probably millions of family stores, located strategically in areas where there is large concentration of population, make distribution easy in a country like India. Besides, establishing such machines and operating and maintaining them in working condition require high investments and other sustainable inputs. Even in places like Rail Stations, Bus Terminals and Tourism Centers there are vending shops readily accessible for the public with multiple choices that cannot be rivaled by any vending machine. While vending machines, if maintained well, can be a boon to consumers, there can be safety problems associated with these units as reported recently in the US where vending machines are ubiquitous by their wide scale presence.
"Coliform bacteria was detected in 48% of the beverages and 20% had a heterotrophic plate count greater than 500 cfu/ml. [...] More than 11% of the beverages analyzed contained Escherichia coli [E. Coli] and over 17% contained Chryseobacterium meningosepticum. Other opportunistic pathogenic microorganisms isolated from the beverages included species of Klebsiella, Staphylococcus, Stenotrophomonas, Candida, and Serratia. Most of the identified bacteria showed resistance to one or more of the 11 antibiotics tested".
If contamination with various microbes is as wide spread as reported, a radical relook at the design and operational mode of these machines are called for. One of the reasons could be the inadequacy of the cleaning regime after each reloading allowing such microbes to reside in the machine for long time, contaminating the fresh incoming product. The consoling factor is that vending machines are rarely found to be responsible for food poisoning episodes in the past, though such incidences cannot be ruled out in future for which precautionary measures need to be taken now. It is the unsuspecting consumer whose life is put in jeopardy by such unsafe machines or the products vended through them.