Ice machine suppliers claim staff training and hygiene practices are to blame for the latest ‘dirty ice’ expose on the industry rather than any fundamental flaws in equipment design.
The BBC’s Watchdog programme has made a habit of testing the bacteria levels on ice served up by high street coffee shops and restaurants in recent years – and just last week it turned its attention to pub operators.
Investigators were sent to 10 branches each of Wetherspoon, Harvester, Slug and Lettuce, Hungry Horse and Marston’s, with tests revealing faecal bacteria at levels “too high to count” in at least one of all of them.
Equipment suppliers argue the latest probe merely highlights the importance of regular cleaning and maintenance for ice makers.
“With the amount of equipment available to protect ice, and the simplicity of keeping modern ice machines hygienically clean, it should be easy to maintain good standards of practice,” insists Mark Hogan, commercial director of FEM. “The solution is proper staff training, including basic hygiene – especially washing hands after going to the toilet, which should be part of everyone’s routine.”
David Rees, marketing manager of HTG Trading, which distributes Scotsman Ice machines through its Hubbard Systems subsidiary, says stories like the one involving the pub chains are happening “far too often”.
“Despite dangerous bacteria being regularly discovered in ice, operators seem to be continuing to let cleaning schedules slide. But ice is a foodstuff, and should be treated as such,” he remarked.
There are numerous factors that could result in ice being contaminated. One of the easier things to overlook is mishandling by front-of-house staff.
While chefs and food handlers are usually aware of the importance of cleaning their hands before touching food, basic hygiene training is sometimes overlooked for front-of-house staff, or forgotten about in the daily bustle of work.
“Ice should never be handled with bare hands,” continued Mr Rees. “Only tools like tongs or scoops should be used, and those tools should be cleaned and sanitised at least once a day to stop contamination from getting out of hand. While human contact is the largest vector for bacterial transmission, it can also fall on it directly from the air. Ice containers should have lids in order to minimise those risks.”
Suppliers recommend operators set up a regular ice machine cleaning schedule, based on the manufacturer’s guidelines, and make sure staff stick to it.
“If necessary, contact your ice machine supplier or the manufacturer and get them to supply guidelines. They may be happy to send someone in to train staff,” said Mr Hogan, whose company is the UK distributor for Manitowoc Ice machines and also markets a range of ice hygiene equipment made by San Jamar. “It’s not hard to keep on top of ice hygiene – you just have to build vigilance into your staff’s routine.”