An article from the Chicago Sun Times, 12/2/07:
Hold the ice: What's in your glass might surprise you
COLD TRUTH | 'Someone's not washing their hands properly': 1 in 5 samples from restaurants, bars found to have high levels of bacteria
December 2, 2007
BY ART GOLAB AND LEONARD N. FLEMING Staff Reportersfirstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Next time you go out to eat or to a bar, it might be a good idea to say, "Hold the ice."
In a test of ice cubes from 49 fast-food and casual-dining restaurants and hotel bars in the city and suburbs, the Chicago Sun-Times found that more than one of every five samples contained high levels of bacteria.
» Click to enlarge image In a test of ice cubes from 49 eateries in the city and suburbs, more than one of every five samples contained high levels of bacteria.
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Samples taken at three of the restaurants contained an undetermined amount of fecal coliform, according to the findings of a government-certified laboratory that performed tests on the samples for the newspaper.
By comparison, a water sample taken from a toilet in a men's room at the Sun-Times tested cleaner than the ice obtained at 21 of the restaurants and bars.
11 score worst
Drinking-water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandate average levels of less than one colony of coliform bacteria per milliliter.
Still, bacteria -- even fecal coliform -- aren't necessarily dangerous for most people. But they can lead to illness, experts say, especially among those who are very old or young,
Some highlights of the newspaper's findings:
• • Ice from 11 restaurants or bars had high levels of "total coliform bacteria" -- more than 200 bacteria colonies per milliliter tested. These included an Applebee's at 7519 S. Cicero, a Chipotle Mexican Grill at 10 S. LaSalle, a Starbucks at 444 N. Michigan, Asiago Express at 176 N. Wells, an Outback Steakhouse at 216 E. Golf Rd. in Schaumburg, a Burger King at 6950 S. Pulaski, a Caribou Coffee at 3025 N. Clark, Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery at 1 W. Grand, and the bars at three high-end hotels -- the Drake Hotel at 140 E. Walton, the Hyatt Regency Chicago at 151 E. Wacker and the Sheraton Chicago at 301 E. North Water.
• • Representatives of most of those said they adhere to all recommended sanitary practices, several said they had taken additional steps in response to the Sun-Times' findings, and several noted they routinely pass health inspections. Ice, though, usually isn't tested by the Chicago Health Department. Few health departments test ice because of the expense.
• • Ten establishments had lower levels of total coliform bacteria -- fewer than 200 colonies per milliliter.
• • Nearly all of the ice tested that came from self-serve ice machines had low levels of bacteria or none at all.
• • Hotel lobby bars, where ice is often transported by and handled by multiple people, didn't test as well: Three of four bars tested had ice with high levels of bacteria.
• • Twenty-eight of the 49 samples showed no bacteria at all.
The findings shouldn't alarm people, experts said.
"It's not like you'll see people dropping over dead or huge numbers getting sick because it's going to take just the right bacteria and the right person to make them ill," said Penn State University's Brian Swistock, co-author of the university's publication "Water Tests: What Do the Numbers Mean?"
'Would be a problem'
But high bacteria levels such as those found in some of the ice cube samples might help explain some of the stomach ills people get, according to Swistock and others.
"The illnesses are very nondescript," he said. "They might just be a flu-like symptom, a little bit of nausea, a slight fever -- something that a lot of people would write off as just being a bug that they got."
In any amount, though, the presence of fecal coliform bacteria -- as the tests found at three restaurants -- "would be a problem," according to Frances Guichard, director of food protection at the Chicago Health Department.
"It means that obviously someone's not washing their hands properly, and there's fecal mater," Guichard said. "If there's enough, it can make someone sick."
And the more the ice comes in contact with people, the more likely it is to become contaminated with bacteria, according to Mary Troken, director of the food service sanitation program at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago.
"Ice, whether we all realize it or not, is really food, and it's very mishandled," said Troken, a registered dietitian.
"If you've got someone who did not wash their hands properly, they might have touched raw foods or gone to the washroom, and now they're touching the ice; those are opportunities for the bacteria to get transferred to the ice."
In the Sun-Times' tests, reporters ordered drinks with ice on the side or got the ice from self-serve machines. Taking care not to touch the ice and potentially contaminate it, they then transferred the cubes to sterile containers. The melted water from the ice cubes was tested the same day by Suburban Laboratories of Hillside, which is certified by the EPA.
For each sample, the lab counted the number of bacterial colonies and determined whether fecal coliform bacteria were present.
The tests offered a snapshot -- of the particular ice cubes that were tested on the particular day the samples were taken.
The testing did not follow all EPA protocols, which would include repeat testing. Still, experts said it would be highly unlikely to get bacteria readings of "too numerous to count" by contamination introduced in the testing process.
In response to the test results, representatives of the restaurants and bars where the ice cubes showed high levels of bacteria said they were taking the findings seriously, even as some questioned them.
"Although we question the methodology," a Rock Bottom spokesman said, "we did take immediate -- voluntary and precautionary -- steps to address the situation. All ice machines in the building were drained and thoroughly sanitized, and we retrained our staff regarding the proper handling of ice."
Health, safety 'a priority'
An Applebee's spokesman said: "The health and safety of our guests is a priority. We have taken the necessary steps to ensure our ice-making and water-supply systems are clean and sanitized."
A Starbucks spokesman said: "Starbucks policy requires that each store undertake regular, thorough cleanings of their ice machines and ice bins. On a daily basis, ice machines and ice bins are thoroughly wiped down with sanitization solutions that kill bacteria and viruses. On a monthly basis, the machines and bins are completely disassembled and fully cleaned and sanitized from top to bottom."
Additionally, the spokesman said that, though an inspection it commissioned "found no evidence of issues associated with the ice or ice machine, we worked closely with the store involved in the investigation to ensure that they immediately conducted an additional, thorough, top-to-bottom cleaning of their ice container."
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