By Jason Masters
Environmental Health Director
Q: Hello Jason. Well, I have a question… Every year at this time, I remember taking my kids
out for Halloween trick or treating. They would come home with bags and bags of candy, and
being the good parent I was, I had to go through all of it and pull out the “moldy” pieces. I’m
sure I saved my kids from all kinds of sickness, but I’d like to understand the differences
between mold on food and mold in a dirty ice machine. I’ve read a lot of health inspections,
and I noticed that “Ice machine is in need of cleaning to remove visible accumulation of mold
and mildew” is marked quite a bit. In the spirit of Halloween, I was hoping you could lend
some insight as to why this mold and slime is such a big deal.
Happy Halloween Keith! Great question. You know, I remember when I was a kid growing up in the 80s, after my mom bought my brothers and me a costume, you know, one of those old 80s costumes with the one piece outfit and plastic mask? When you were at the store shopping for them, you could look right in the box and see that plastic mask through the cellophane window? Things like Smurfs, Transformers, He-Man, Magnum PI… those kind of things? Anyway, Halloween would finally arrive and we would all get our costumes on and my dad would drive us around the community and stop at all the houses. We would have to drive because we didn’t live close enough to any neighbors to walk. It was a big deal to get three kids out of the car, make sure all of our costumes were right, and finally get to the door. Of course, after all that, there was certainly no surprise when we knocked on the doors of the neighbors. Heck, we’d been there for twenty minutes before ever walking up to the house! But still, that didn’t stop my dad from loading us all back up after we got our usual Mary Janes, sugar daddies, maybe a Twix, and those inevitable (and awful) peanut butter things wrapped in orange or black paper, and heading out for the 4 minute drive to the next house. Yep, Halloween was a special time for my family and me in the 80s, and we still love it. But now, on to your question…
Slime. Mold. Mildew. All of these words evoke thoughts of an oozing mass of green, pink, black, or red ectoplasm, especially when used in conjunction with something like an ice machine, where it is usually seen. Makes sense though, ice machines are full of water and humidity, which is the perfect environment for the growth of moldy-ness. Now, is all mold harmful? Heck no! Penicillin comes from mold! Bleu Cheese comes from a molding process! And fermentation is kind of like controlling a molding process, and we all know what that leads to…Of course! Kimchi! And beer and wine, and that stuff too, if that’s what you’re into.
So if mold leads us to good things like fermented beverages, fizzy vegetables and tangy cheeses, why is it such a big deal in an ice machine?
Well here’s why… Picture, in your mind’s eye, a big green Jell-O mold in the shape of Slimer from Ghostbusters, with some tasty raisins inside. Here is the catch though, you can only get to those delicious raisins by wiping the side of the Jell-O with a rag. It’s going to take a lot of rubbing to get to those raisins. Well, in an ice machine, things like Listeria, E. coli, and Salmonella can get stuck in that mold and mildew layer. That layer is called a biofilm, and is going to provide a certain amount of protection to those pathogens, and allow them to grow and multiply, just like our friend Slimer is protecting those raisins. Wiping out mold and mildew when I point it out during a routine inspection does not solve the problem. Only a thorough cleaning, with the use of some kind of sanitizer will effectively clean the mold and mildew in an ice machine. How do those pathogens get in the ice machine in the first place? Well, if you are a regular reader of my articles, you already know that people don’t always wash their hands when they should. Food Employees in restaurants frequently handle raw proteins, and inevitably, some amount of pathogenic contamination is going to occur. Why do I care? I care because the 2017 FDA Food Code defines ice as a food. Now because we all live in a time where we don’t really have to worry about how safe our drinking water is, it really should come as no surprise that we just believe something as ubiquitous as ice is also safe and clean. Think about the applications of ice in a restaurant. Of course, the obvious, ice in drinks, but ice is used to cool foods quickly, by either placing hot pots or pans of food into ice baths, or by simply adding ice to a food product. Sometimes bottles or cans are placed in ice to keep them cold. That’s a lot of back and forth trips to the ice machine
with scoops and hands plunging deep into mounds of shiny, cold ice. Take a look at any meat market and you’ll see raw proteins sitting on top of ice all over the place. Easy to see how pathogens could make the jump there. Now that we’ve talked about some of biological hazards associated with ice machines, let’s talk for a second about physical hazards. In much the same way that pathogens can jump from bare hands into an ice machine, think about chunks of food that might be stuck on a food employees hands. If you work with food, you know that there is always a moment when something sticks to your hands. Could be a small piece of diced onion, might be a sticky piece of raw chicken fat, heck, it could even be something that gets stuck in your jewelry. Sometimes pieces of mold fall into the ice, sometimes screws fall into the ice, sometimes people put their leftover sardine sandwich in the ice machine to keep it cold. My point is, always be sure to keep an eye open for things in food that isn’t supposed to be there. You might be able to spot a nut or bolt in your cherry coke, but you aren’t going to see Salmonella or E. coli. That is
one of the reasons you have to be SUPER detailed if you call in to our office and claim you got sick. We are going to need to know EVERYTHING you ate, including what beverages.
Stay safe, friends, and have a great Halloween!