Can Restaurant Ice Make You Sick? Food Safety Experts Reveal What You Should Know

In trying to meet my daily water goals, I typically chug down glass after icy glass when I eat out. But after reading reports of commercial ice linked to food poisoning outbreaks and watching videos of ice machines at fast food establishments filled with mold (who knew ice could grow mold?), I’m ready to ditch my iced lattes and swear off frozen margs. 

While most of us are aware of the potential dangers of ordering ice while traveling abroad, we wouldn’t think twice about ordering an iced latte at our local coffee shop. But should we?

HuffPost spoke with food safety experts and hospitality workers about why you might want to avoid ordering ice in your drinks.   

Can ice make you sick?

Ice doesn’t typically top the food safety hit list in the United States because tap water is usually safe (with exceptions). When you make ice cubes at home, there’s no concern that the cubes reach a safe internal temperature ― it’s not like you’re cooking a chicken.

Instead, issues arise when the mechanism for creating ice is unsanitary, or if someone touches the ice with dirty hands. Dr. Bryan Quoc Le, a food scientist and author of the book ”150 Food Science Questions Answered,” explained, “Ice that has been handled improperly can pick up mold, bacteria and viruses from the hands of servers or cooks that transmit disease, much like any other food. Ice can also pick up microorganisms from the air or in the container if it is not properly washed and cleaned.”

Mold can grow in ice machines.

When hundreds or thousands of folks need to be served, individual ice trays aren’t going to cut it. Instead, bars, restaurants, hotels, hospitals and even nursing homes use ice machines to spit out cubes and flakes. And like most machines, they need to get cleaned. Le explained, “Ice machines should be regularly cleaned and sterilized. If there are any potential contaminants in the ice machine itself, these can spread to the ice produced. Examples include mold and bacteria in the piping or intakes.”

According to Megan, an HR adviser for a catering group who has requested to remain anonymous, ice machines are some of the least frequently cleaned pieces of kitchen equipment. She said, “There have been plenty of jobs where I worked for over a year, and I can’t remember a single time where the ice machine was ever cleaned. There was only one place where it got cleaned, and that’s because it broke. It wasn’t a duty for the bartender, so it wasn’t written as part of weekly/monthly/yearly cleaning schedules.

When no one cleans or cares for the ice machine, mold grows or the machine breaks. Le explained, “The FDA stipulates that ice machines need to be cleaned and sterilized at least two to four times per year. Heavier usage ice machines may need to be cleaned once per month. The reasoning is that microorganisms coming in from the water can produce biofilm buildup, or if hard water is coming into the ice machine, this can produce a scale that filters and holds bacteria and molds. Over time, these can produce toxins and spores that leach into the ice water.”

Smoothies, slushies and frozen alcoholic beverages, unfortunately, have to be added to the watch list. Flakes and chewable ice from machines are often used to blend into these beverages, meaning that mold from dirty machines can end up in your strawberry daiquiri.

Have people actually gotten sick from ice?

“Mold in ice can cause respiratory illnesses and allergic reactions,” Le said. “Mold can also serve as a source of nutrition for other pathogenic bacteria and microorganisms to grow on.”

There have been numerous reported incidents of contamination.

A 2018 study of five hospitals and two nursing homes in Cleveland, Ohio, found contamination of bacteria and yeast in 64 ice machines, causing an outbreak of gram-negative bacilli and Candida. A leaking air ventilation valve in an ice machine in Finland caused 154 people to become sick in 2016 with norovirus, and a 2002 study found ice machines causing an outbreak of mycobacteria fortuitum in St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center in Greenwich Village, New York City. While the pathogens may vary, ice machine outbreaks often cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, nausea and bloody stool, according to Le.

Since we don’t typically associate beverages with foodborne illness, it’s possible there are more incidents that are unreported. 

Should we avoid ice at restaurants?

Despite the horror stories of broken, moldy ice machines and dirty commercial ice, Bucknavage and Le both noted that folks shouldn’t be too concerned.

Le said, “Ice machines are typically quite safe so long as they are monitored and sanitized on a regular basis. It’s not a major concern compared to actual foodborne outbreaks from contaminated food, and food outbreaks caused by contaminated ice is not particularly common in North America.”

If you want to be extra safe, Bucknavage suggested looking for “establishments that have hands-free or touchless dispensers, as this limits the risk of cross-contamination with other foods.