Your Ice Could Be Dirty

An NBC Connecticut investigation has uncovered a dirty problem at some restaurants.

The next time you order a drink from your favorite eatery, you might want to think twice.  Most of us expect our food to be safe, but what about our ice?

A service industry insider came to NBC Connecticut with pictures he said everyone has to see. 

They show different parts of an ice machine at one local restaurant that are covered with slime, mold and black stuff.

Our insider didn't want to go on camera for fear of retaliation, but he wants everyone to know what is happening in the food service industry.

The machine in the pictures is a self-serve machine, but many times, restaurant employees fill your beverage by hand.

"Ice is a considered a food product and can very easily be contaminated in different ways," Nancy Dupont, an infection prevention specialist at UConn, said.

We took our hidden camera to a dozen food service locations across Connecticut, including fast-food joints, mall eateries and restaurants. Right away, we saw employees at the Wendy's in West Hartford dredging drink cups through the ice with their bare hands.

Dupont said that's a food safety no-no and health code violation.

"That behavior really is unacceptable," said Dupont.

The management company for Wendy's agreed and told NBC Connecticut, "the practice is not endorsed, is not policy or procedure and is certainly not acceptable."

This particular franchise failed its last health inspection, but passed re-inspection last September.  Inspectors noted a dirty ice machine was part of the problem.  Managers are now in the middle of reviewing proper procedure with all employees at the restaurant.

The next thing we found was even more disturbing. 

Our camera caught employees touching the ice with their bare hands. Minutes earlier, another employee placed the bucket of ice on the floor, uncovered.  Dupont said it's poor practice.

"My concern would also be the storage of the ice. It appeared it was on the floor near the counter without a cover over it, enabling particles to drop into it at any time," she pointed out.

Sbarro's district manager told NBC CT by phone, "both things violate the restaurant's food handling policy." 

He promised to correct the practice immediately.  The restaurant did pass its last health inspection, although it was noted in the report, all shift managers needed to be "food safety" certified.

Finally, we saw something that appeared to be safe but wasn't. Our camera caught a worker using a scoop to retrieve the ice.

"It looks OK, but the industry standard is to have a separate compartment outside of the ice container, where the scoop is kept," Dupont said.

Almost all of the restaurants in our investigation appeared to have unsafe ice handling practices, but it's impossible to know how often ice becomes contaminated, or how many people get sick from tainted ice. Most usually don't know or suffer in silence.

"It would most likely not be a severe infection or maybe even undetectable," Dupont said.

Here's what you can do: experts say if you want to avoid contamination, you should pay attention to how servers handle your ice or skip it altogether.

"You may not be able to recognize it.  It may not be visible to the naked eye," Dupont said.

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