Food safety has to be a primary concern on the mind of every NYC restaurant owner. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t stay in business very long. The consequences of serving potentially dangerous food are serious, not only to your patrons’ health, but also for your business:
- poor health inspection grades
- negative reviews on social media and in the press
- lawsuits and even financial damages
All of these consequences will erode your customer base and eventually put you out of business. As a successful restaurant owner or manager, you already know this, and you’re certainly vigilant about enforcing safe food handling and keeping your kitchen clean. But there’s a food safety danger in your restaurant that’s hiding in plain sight: your ice machine.
Don’t forget that ice is food
It’s easy to overlook the risks associated with ice machines, since we don’t tend to think of ice as food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, does define ice as food. Ice is handled by your staff and ingested by your customers, and it can spread illness just as easily as other food sources if contaminated by viruses, bacteria and mold. And if your ice is contaminated, you won’t even know it ntil it’s too late. Your ice could look, smell and taste just fine, but still be harboring dangerous microorganisms.
A study by the Daily Mail found one in three food establishments serving dirty ice. In a 2011 study of Las Vegas food establishments, over 70 percent of ice samples tested positive for the presence of coliform bacteria. These bacteria can and do cause serious illness. How does ice contamination happen? Most often, it’s the result of poor ice machine maintenance and cleaning.
Safe ice requires a clean ice machine
According to FDA regulations, ice needs to be stored and handled like food, and that means ice machines need to be regularly cleaned. Food Law 2009 Chapter 4 specifies that ice machines must be cleaned and sanitized at the frequency recommended by the manufacturer, which is generally at least 2 to 4 times per year. Depending on your usage volume, the location of the machine, and the water conditions, you may need to clean it more often. For very heavily used units located near a cooking line inside a restaurant kitchen, you may need to clean the machine as often as every month. If you haven’t been doing this, or not doing it properly or frequently enough, it’s likely that you have mold, slime and scale buildup inside your machine that’s contaminating your ice.
And it gets even worse. When a contaminant is introduced into an ice machine, the ice can actually preserve the germs and the moisture allows them to reproduce. As they grow in a colony, those dangerous microorganisms excrete sticky substances called biofilms that make them very difficult to remove once established. Getting rid of mold and other dangerous microorganisms is not so easy; it
requires physically scrubbing with specialized chemicals. And if you miss a spot, mold can regrow again very quickly even after being removed. That’s why prevention- that is, preventive maintenance–is the best strategy to avoid ice contamination.
Don’t let just anybody clean your ice machine
Cleaning an ice machine is a job for the pros; don’t just send in your maintenance guy with a bottle of bleach. First of all, you need to know what products to use for the type of ice machine you have. You also need to know how to disassemble the machine, meticulously clean all parts including the water line, and put it all back together.
Professional refrigeration service experts not only know all the ins and outs of your machine and the right techniques to ensure your ice is clean, but they also know how to inspect and care for the machine to maximize its life span.
Don’t neglect other ice safety and handling guidelines
Once your machine is clean and sanitized regularly, follow these guidelines from Food Safety Magazine to prevent contamination between cleanings:
- When removing ice, use scoops with handles that prevent hands from touching the ice. Don’t touch any other part of the scoop except the handle.
- Keep the scoop outside the ice bin, so the handles don’t touch the ice. The scoop should be kept on a stainless steel, impervious plastic or fiberglass tray.
- Keep doors closed except when removing ice.
- Consider periodically testing your ice and ice machine surfaces for the presence of contaminants.
A refrigeration service contract doesn’t have to cost as much as you might think. The right refrigeration service company can customize the contract based on your equipment, your needs and your budget. To learn more, refer to our helpful guide to Refrigeration Preventive Maintenance Contracts: How to Find the Right One for Your Food Service Operation