We’re in the heat of summer, and what better way to cool down than a refreshingly cool, icy drink? But, have you ever stopped to wonder what’s in your glass? If ice machines – whether in the home or a commercial kitchen – aren’t adequately maintained, there could be all sorts of contaminants lurking within the ice, from dirt and dust to germs, mold, bacteria, and slime; oh my! Ice machines are an essential piece of kitchen equipment, and if they aren’t cleaned regularly, it can lead to dirty ice and potential health risks.
In this article, we’ll give you a rundown of some of the common contaminants found in ice machines, how to remove them – and how to help prevent them from coming back.
Mold & Slime
According to Martin Bucknavage, the senior food safety extension associate at the Department of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University, mold may be the most common source of ice contamination. Mold and slime form because ice machines provide a damp and dark environment where they can thrive. In commercial kitchens, flour, yeast, and dust in the air give these growths an unlimited supply of food to continue to flourish.
The best way to prevent mold and slime growth in your ice machine is to stay on top of regular maintenance. Experts recommend deep cleaning and sanitizing ice machines at least twice a year. However, in environments where yeast, flour, dust, or other airborne particulates are present (such as bakeries and breweries), ice machines should be cleaned and sanitized more frequently (generally once a month) to prevent mold from forming in the first place.
If an employee forgets to wash their hands thoroughly after using the restroom or taking out the garbage, they can unknowingly transfer the fecal matter to an ice supply. Yikes! Fecal matter is not just disgusting; it can also cause foodborne illness – and it’s definitely not something you want in your ice machine. The best way to prevent contamination of your ice supply (and your entire kitchen, for that matter) is to maintain a strict policy that all employees wash their hands thoroughly after using restroom facilities or anytime after they touch a trash container. Employees should always use soap and water and scrub their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds.
Proper ice handling is another way to ensure your ice supply isn’t contaminated. Employees should always handle ice with an ice scoop – never with bare hands or used glassware. Ice scoops should be cleaned and sanitized after every use with a food-contact sanitizer such as Vital Oxide.
Dust & Dirt
Not only are dust and dirt gross, but they can also end up affecting your ice machine’s performance. Air-cooled ice machines – the most common type of commercial ice machine – use a fan to pull in the surrounding air, which assists in cooling down the condenser. As a result, any air drawn into the machine brings dust and dirt along with it. While these types of devices do have an air filter (which requires weekly cleanings), they aren’t 100% effective. Even if the filters are cleaned regularly, trace amounts of dirt and dust will inevitably find their way into the machine, which is another reason why it's crucial to stay on top of deep cleaning at least every six months. Otherwise, dirt and dust can accumulate and stick to the unit’s condenser, forming a cover that insulates and retains any heat that the ice machine produces. When an ice machine can’t release heat effectively, it can cause your appliance to work harder, using more energy, and can also prevent your device from producing as much ice as it should be. All of this extra wear-and-tear can eventually lead to costly repairs.
A 2017 undercover study by the BBC investigated iced beverages in the U.K. and found that out of 30 samples taken from three different coffee chains, more than half were contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria. The culprit? Dirty ice.
Since the Safe Drinking Water Act was established in 1974, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked tirelessly to ensure that harmful levels of pathogens are kept out of the U.S. public water supply. Dr. Pritish Tosh, an infectious diseases physician and researcher at the Mayo Clinic, says that ice is very rarely contaminated from dirty water. More likely, the once-clean water becomes contaminated during the freezing and dispensing process. It’s also not uncommon for bacteria to accumulate in ice makers, potentially contaminating the ice.
Another study, conducted in 2011, focused on ice dispensers in Las Vegas food establishments. Researchers found that 33.3% of the ice samples "exceeded the EPA limits set for heterotrophic bacteria concentration for drinking water," and 72.2% were "positive for presumptive coliform bacteria presence."
Another possibility is that equipment or utensils used in ice machines can quickly become cross-contaminated if it touches other foods being served or if someone uses the equipment with unwashed hands. For example, if an employee uses an ice scoop with unwashed hands and then drops the scoop back into the ice, the cubes could become contaminated with whatever was on the employee’s hands. The same goes for your ice at home. If someone picks up the ice tray out of the freezer (or scoops ice out of the ice maker) with unwashed hands, the ice could become contaminated.
Vital Oxide: The Ideal Cleaner & Sanitizer for Your Ice Machine
The inside of an ice machine is considered a food-contact surface. These are areas where food, including ice, touches the surface. Therefore, most conventional cleaners and sanitizers are not safe for use in ice machines. They may be too harsh, or leave behind harmful residues that can contaminate ice.
Vital Oxide is a class apart – and the ideal cleaner and sanitizer for your ice machine and beyond. Vital Oxide is non-corrosive to most treated articles, free from harsh chemicals and harmful residues, and it’s also an NSF-certified (no rinse required) food-contact surface sanitizer. As well as being highly effective against mold, Vital Oxide kills 99.999% of bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, Sphingomonas, and Listeria, in less than 60 seconds.
How Often Should You Clean Your Ice Machine?
Every ice machine is different, so it’s essential to know the make and model of your particular appliance and consult the owner’s manual before attempting any maintenance. Generally, ice machines should be deep cleaned and sanitized at least once every six months for efficient operation.
Follow these tips to keep your ice machine clean and free from contaminants:
- Inspect your ice machine daily: Check for the presence of any grime or mold, especially on interior surfaces. If you notice any debris, it’s crucial to turn off the machine, empty it, and perform a deep clean and sanitization procedure.
- Always use clean ice scoops to serve ice: Never use bare hands or a dirty ice scoop.
- Wash and sanitize ice scoops daily: Between shifts, wash ice scoops with warm, soapy water and sanitize with Vital Oxide.
- Clean and sanitize the exterior daily: Use a cloth dipped in Vital Oxide to clean and sanitize the door and exterior of the machine during your regular daily cleaning routine.
- Always double-check the quality, of cleaning: Every night, have a manager follow-up on cleaning performed by staff to ensure surfaces were properly cleaned and all debris was removed.
- Inspect dim parts weekly: Use a flashlight to inspect interior areas of the ice machine. This helps to see dim areas, such as around and into the ice chute, which can easily become a mold-magnet.
- Increase cleaning frequency: Increase cleaning frequency as needed. Don’t wait until visible debris or slime develops.
At Vital Oxide, we’re proud to offer a revolutionary product that’s powerful enough to neutralize pathogens without harsh chemicals or alarming safety ratings. Follow us on Instagram (@vitaloxideofficial) for more great cleaning and disinfecting tips. If you have any questions, please Contact Us or Send Us a Message on Facebook. We're here to help.