If you’re like me, you LOVE soft serve ice cream. It’s rich and creamy and it gives us those classic nostalgic vibes. But what if I told you that our favorite summertime treat may sometimes contain potentially life-threatening bacteria? It's a bummer to even think about it, we know. Here are five reasons you should think twice before eating soft serve ice cream this summer.
Soft serve machines can harbor dangerous bacteria.
Since soft serve is dispensed from a machine, it’s vulnerable to contamination if the machines aren’t properly sanitized. According to Janilyn Hutchings, a Certified Profession in Food Safety from State Food Safety, “soft serve...machines should be cleaned and sanitized every 10–24 hours.” If restaurant managers or ice cream vendors aren’t diligent about regular cleaning, the machines can quickly develop mold or, worse, become a breeding ground for all sorts of invisible bacteria.
And those machines are tricky to keep sanitary.
Cleaning a soft serve machine is not a simple process. According to Hutchings, these machines “often include parts that can be removed and cleaned” while “other parts have to be cleaned in place.” Training employees to properly disassemble and sanitize the machines can be challenging. And even if the employees know how to do it correctly, Hutchings says that this task is “commonly forgotten in food worker cleaning routines.” In other words, it’s fairly likely that the machine your soft serve comes from is not being cleaned enough.
The soft serve mixture itself can also become easily contaminated.
A lot of soft serve ice cream is made with an unpasteurized base that needs to be stored at refrigeration temperature—below 40 degrees. But, according to the Vermont State agricultural guidelines, “as close to 32°F as possible, without freezing.” Storing it in this temperature range ensures that the ice cream base, which already contains natural bacteria and has a high potential to grow more quickly due to its high moisture levels, remains safe for consumption. But that’s an incredibly specific, incredibly narrow range. Chances are, your soft serve has been vulnerable to all kinds of bacteria growth before it lands in your cone.
And all that bacteria can make you seriously sick.
Over the last several decades, there have been numerous cases of food poisoning caused by soft serve. Back in 2005, over 120 people in Ohio got sick when a soft serve ice cream machine became contaminated with staphylococcus. In a more recent case from 2016, two hospitalized patients in Seattle became even sicker after enjoying milkshakes from the hospital cafeteria. In this last case, the milkshakes were contaminated with listeria, which, according to Hutchings, is “probably the most dangerous...because it can be deadly.” And in August 2023, three people died and more were sickened after drinking milkshakes contaminated with listeria. Blame was placed on an improperly cleaned ice cream machine at a Washington State burger joint.
Listeria is the third leading cause of food-related deaths in the U.S. It can be fatal for anyone, but Hutchings says that it’s especially concerning “for pregnant women because it can have serious effects on the baby, including premature birth or stillbirth.” Listeria running rampant in the soft serve machines is no joke!
There are other ways to get your soft serve fix.
At this point, you might be tempted to push the panic button. Please don’t. Sure, soft serve from a soft serve machine might not be the safest option, but there are other ways to satisfy your frozen-dessert cravings. Try this easy hack for making your own soft serve with just a few ingredients. Or, if you want to go a little fancier, whip up a batch of no-churn ice cream: its light, creamy texture is pretty similar to soft serve, and you’ll get to play with lots of fun flavors, from strawberry shortcake to mudslide. With all these possibilities at your fingertips, you won’t even hear the call of the soft serve truck.
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