When restaurants get lax on ice machine cleaning, the results can be chilling — from a failed health inspection to gross news headlines about black mold clogging an ice machine at a local eatery to, in the worse-case scenario, sick customers.
Experts say that’s because ice machines provide an ideal environment for microbes to flourish. “You’ve got wet, cold conditions and sometimes infrequent cleaning,” says James Marsden, distinguished professor of food safety and security at Kansas State University, who has studied ice machines and health. “So, bacteria, mold and viruses can colonize in ice machines and when that happens, the ice itself can become contaminated.”
There are a number of microorganisms that have been found in dirty ice machines, he says, including salmonella, e. coli and shigella, all of which are bacteria, as well as a virus called norovirus. These microbes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can cause a range of gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea or stomach cramps, depending on the germ.
Another type of bacteria, listeria monocytogenes, also has been found in ice machines, Marsden says. It can be especially dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn babies — even causing miscarriage or stillbirth — as well as to seniors, infants and people with compromised immune systems, according to the CDC.
One study done at the University of Texas found that bacteria and viruses survive in contaminated ice — even when an alcoholic beverage is poured into the glass, Marsden says. And the health risk is not theoretical. There have been actual outbreaks of illness caused by contaminated ice. “Once the pathogens get in the ice, they do pose a real human health risk,” he says.
But the chance you could make your customers ill isn’t the only problem that can be caused by an ice machine that hasn’t been cleaned often enough.There’s also another issue: taste. “Maybe the most common thing to find in an ice machine is just plain mold,” Marsden says. “And nobody wants ice that tastes moldy.” Scott Deshetler, director of marketing for the Denver, Colorado, ice machine manufacturer Ice-O-Matic, agrees. “If you’re putting ice in soft drinks and that ice machine hasn’t been cleaned in a while, it will definitely impact the taste,” Deshetler says.
As part of the solution, in addition to regular cleaning and sanitizing, Marsden recommends restaurant owners consider using an antimicrobial device in the ice machine. For example, he did proprietary research for a company in Florida that was having problems with its ice machines. he found that using a sanitizing device that fit into the machines and used ultraviolet light to produce very low levels of hydrogen peroxide vapor solved the problem.
“It works 24 hours a day, seven days a week and creates an environment inside the machine that doesn’t allow bacteria or mold spores or viruses to survive,” he says. Also, because the hydrogen peroxide breaks down quickly, no residue is left behind.
Another benefit is that kind of device can reduce the frequency of cleaning and maintenance, he says. The company Marsden worked with, for example, went from having to clean their machines every few weeks to once a year. “The return on investment would be in a matter of months,” he says.
This could be especially important for pizzerias, because yeast used to make the pizza dough can fly through the air on particles of flour, get into ice machines and grow. “If you’ve got yeast floating through the air, even if you cleaned the ice machine 10 minutes ago, you’ve got it in there again,” Marsden says, noting that yeast is a microorganism related to mold, and also would be kept in check by a sanitizing device.
Even if you do use an antimicrobial device, regular cleaning, sanitizing and maintenance still are crucial, experts say. “Cleaning is important not only from a health and safety standpoint, as well as taste and quality, but also because it extends the life of your machine,” Deshetler says. “There’s an economic benefit to the operator as well.”
Cleaning can be a chore, however, and Marsden says it’s crucial to get your machine 100 percent cleaned and sanitized when you do the job, because certain bacteria — such as listeria monocytogenes, for example — can form a biofilm that acts as a protective shell. “You can pour sanitizer right on top of it, and it can’t get through the biofilm to kill the bacteria,” he says.
Restaurant owners who don’t want to deal with the hassle have several options. They can set up a regular schedule for a professional ice machine cleaning company to service their machines, they can lease a machine, or they can use a subscription service. Heidi Alberti, marketing director for Easy Ice, says a subscription service can have several advantages. For example, the burden of preventive maintenance, routine cleaning and filter replacement falls on the subscription company. There’s also 24-hour customer service and some companies even guarantee that if a machine breaks down and can’t be fixed within six hours, the company will provide bagged ice for free.
“This way, a pizzeria owner doesn’t have to scramble around remembering when the ice machine needs to be cleaned, when the water filter needs to be swapped out, when maintenance needs to be scheduled,” Alberti says.
Allie Johnson is a award-winning freelance writer covering personal finance, business and lifestyle.She lives in Kansas City, Missouri.