Keep Your Ice Clean
Often called the 'forgotten food,' ice isn't often considered when talking about food safety. However, the FDA does consider it a food1, which means all standard food-handling procedures must be observed for ice. Many people may not consider ice a hazard because of the misconception that bacteria cannot survive icy conditions – after all, we freeze food to keep it safe from microorganisms. While it is true that they cannot reproduce in icy conditions, many bacteria and viruses can easily survive in ice, making ice machine heads and bins a potential hotbed of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. In 2012, a Florida student found that in 70 percent of local restaurants, the ice in the establishment harbored more bacteria than the toilet water.2
While rare, it is entirely possible for contaminants in ice to cause illness or even death3, so it is essential that you do everything possible to mitigate that risk. This means implementing equipment and procedures to prevent contamination and make the entire ice operation as safe as possible, from the water flowing into the ice machine to the ice that gets placed in your customers' cups.
Ice must be made from safe drinking water. If your water comes from a nonpublic source, the FDA requires that it be tested annually, but even if your water comes from a public supply, you may wish to have it tested regularly. Knowing about the incoming water, particularly its hardness, can help you know what steps you need to take to protect your equipment. While hard water buildup inside your ice machine will not make water or ice unsafe for consumption, it can alter the taste of the ice. Scale buildup can also damage your commercial ice machine over time, causing mechanical problems that can put your ice in danger or destroy your ice machine.
There are several ways to handle hard water and mitigate any negative effects it might have on your equipment. A water softening system can help remove the minerals from the incoming water, reducing the buildup on your equipment. Another option is an ice maker filter, which can help capture minerals and other contaminants that may be present in your water. Many ice makers also have a deliming program that, along with the recommended solvent, can remove any scale that has built up inside the machine.
Inside the Machine
After the water to make the ice has come into the ice machine, it's at the next possible point of contamination. Ice machines are dark and damp, making them ideal breeding grounds for 'slime', which can consist of yeast, biofilm, or mold. Most manufacturers recommend giving the ice machine a thorough cleaning every six months, though high-yeast environments such as breweries, bakeries, and pizzerias may require cleaning more often. For more information on how to clean your commercial ice machine, consult our article on ice machine cleaning. Your equipment's manual should also have instructions on how to clean and maintain your machine, or you can schedule professional servicing to handle the cleaning.
In addition to cleaning the mechanical parts of the machine, it is also important to make sure the bin where the ice is stored is clean. According to the 2013 Food Code3, "... Ice bins must be cleaned on a routine basis to prevent the development of slime, mold, or soil residues that may contribute to an accumulation of microorganisms." Because this part is more often exposed to the open air and may occasionally come in contact with hands or utensils, the bin should be cleaned somewhere between once a week and once a month.4
As important as cleaning every part of your ice maker is, it's not enough. The machine must also be well-maintained and kept in good condition to ensure your ice is clean and safe to serve to your customers. Hoses, taps, and water filter cartridges all need periodic replacements to prevent cracking, breaking, and clogging from limescale buildup. Door seals should also be checked often, as a poor seal could allow germs, dust, and even insects in to contaminate the ice. Air filters should be changed or cleaned according to the manufacturer's instructions, as poor ventilation can cause condensation, which can allow mold to flourish.
Knowing that your incoming water is safe is essential, and keeping your ice machine clean is necessary, but experts agree that the most common source of ice contamination is improper handling. Employees should always wash their hands before refilling ice bins or dispensing ice to customers, especially if the same employee has been running the register, touching money and credit cards. Below are some more steps you can take to prevent ice contamination at your restaurant:
- Ice should never be scooped with a cup. The outside of the cup has been handled by the employee, which can transfer germs to the ice. If the cup is glass, you even run the risk of tiny glass chips ending up in your ice.
- Always use an ice scoop to dispense ice from an ice bin.
- The ice scoop should never be stored in the ice bin because the handle that employees touch could easily fall into the ice and contaminate it. Instead, invest in a scoop holder or place the scoop on a tray when it is not in use.
- The scoop and its tray or holder should be washed and sanitized daily.
- Never put unused ice back in the bin once it has been scooped out, even if it never left the scoop.
- The ice bin's door should always remain closed when you are not actively scooping out ice.
- Never store anything other than ice in the bin, including canned or bottled sodas or glasses for chilling.
1. Food Code 2013. FDA website. Accessed February 2016.
2. Student Compares Toilet Water to Ice. Business Insider. Accessed February 2016.
3. Dirty Ice Can Make You Sick. Dateline NBC. Accessed February 2016.
4. The Sanitation of Ice-Making Equipment. Food Safety Magazine. Accessed February 2016.