Latest dirty ice scandal ‘shows operators are not heeding lessons’

A leading supplier of commercial ice machines fears the message is “not getting through” to operators after a string of big cinema chains were this week accused of serving drinks with contaminated ice.

A report on BBC’s Watchdog programme uncovered high levels of bacteria in ice at three top cinema chains. In one instance, levels of bacteria were found to be 10,000 times higher than acceptable levels.

Soft drinks from Cineworld, Odeon and Vue were tested in 30 cinemas for the BBC One show, which claims seven branches sold drinks with “unacceptable” bacteria levels.

The findings are the latest in what has become a familiar tale for the foodservice industry. Last year the BBC carried out a similar investigation into ice hygiene at Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero, and the year before at KFC. In both instances it reported serious shortcomings.

Hubbard Systems, which markets the Scotsman range of ice machines, says it’s vital the industry gets serious about cracking down on poor hygiene practices that lead to the cinema chains coming under fire.

“It’s obvious that the message isn’t getting through,” operations Mark Stebbings, operations manager at the firm. “Every year for as long as I can remember similar issues have happened. And every year ice machine suppliers point out the simple measures that need to be taken to sort it out.”

Hubbard said there are a number of “simple” steps that operators can take to prevent ice from being contaminated, starting with the most obvious measure of ensuring staff are washing their hands, picking up the ice with a scoop and ensuring the storage bin is emptied, cleaned and sanitised on a weekly basis.

Additionally, anti-bac bags used in machines fitted with anti-bacterial systems should be changed every month and a maintenance schedule should be implemented to keep equipment in peak condition, it advised.

Previous ice hygiene scandals have seen machine manufacturers leap to the defence of their equipment, pointing out that contamination is usually caused by poor operating practices rather than limitations with product design.

Mr Stebbings said there is now an abundance of online resources that can help anyone looking for guidance on cleaning ice machines, such as the ‘how to’ videos on its own website. “With all the information available, there’s simply no excuse for poor hygiene,” he said.

The BBC’s latest investigation involved testing drinks at 10 branches run by each of Cineworld, Odeon and Vue. It also looked for bacteria on the seat fabric, on the cup holder and in ice cubes.

According to Watchdog, out of the seven cinemas with drinks with high bacteria levels, four belonged to Cineworld, where one drink had 70 times the level considered acceptable, one belonged to Vue, where one drink was 100 times the acceptable level and two belonged to Odeon, with one containing 10,000 times the acceptable level.

Tony Lewis, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, told the broadcaster: “That’s the highest I’ve seen. And that is an indicator of equipment not being kept clean. That’s a worry.”

He suggested the problem was ultimately down to people cutting corners. “And it’s also about managers, owners of cinemas, managers of cinemas, not taking their responsibilities seriously and potentially keeping on top of the issues.”

The cinema chains all told the programme they take hygiene “incredibly seriously” and have robust cleaning procedures in place.

Odeon and Cineworld said seats, drinks holders and drink dispensers were thoroughly cleaned daily, with the ice machines emptied and fully cleaned weekly.

Odeon has launched its own investigation after claiming to be “surprised and disappointed” at the Watchdog findings.

Cineworld said the branches tested have all been awarded the maximum food hygiene rating of five by their local authority and its cleaning procedures were compulsory for all branches.

Vue rejected the findings, saying it “follows strict hygiene procedures daily”. It also said it undertook its own independent tests regularly, conducted by a qualified clinical microbiologist, and worked with third-party water experts to test water.

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