Hold the Ice

Microbiologists at Purdue University put our restaurant ice samples under their powerful microscopes....
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Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Scientists say improper hand washing, food handling and equipment maintenance are to blame for high bacteria levels found in local restaurant ice.

What 13 Investigates discovered in the ice at many Indianapolis-area bars and restaurants is not supposed to be there. In fact, at one of every three restaurants checked, the ice contained more bacteria than toilet water, and health officials say it shows improper practices at local eateries that could make you sick.

This month, WTHR collected ice samples from 25 popular bars and restaurants and took it to a state-certified laboratory for analysis. The results showed at 13 of the 25 bars and restaurants tested, at least one ice sample tested positive for the presence of coliform bacteria.

"When it comes to drinking water - and in this case, ice comes from drinking water - there should be no coliform bacteria at all," said Howard Cundiff, director of consumer protection at the Indiana State Department of Health. "There is no reason it should be there and that's why the standard we use is zero."

The state health department points out that coliform bacteria is common in the environment.

"You can find it anywhere you want to look, on just about any surface," Cundiff said.

But because certain kinds of coliform bacteria can make you sick and because its presence in water suggests the water is vulnerable to contamination from an outside source, public water systems around Indianapolis treat water with chlorine to kill all coliform. Finding even a single bacterial colony in drinking water falls short of the state and federal standard.

Yet tests conducted by 13 Investigates revealed restaurants all over town had some coliform bacteria in the ice.

WHERE WE FOUND IT

From fast food hotspots such as McDonald's (6061 E. 82nd St.) and Taco Bell (444 E. Thompson Rd.) to upscale restaurants including St. Elmo's steakhouse (127 S. Illinois St.) and the Cheesecake Factory (8701 Keystone Crossing), microbiologists detected low levels of coliform in at least one ice sample served to WTHR staff. 

And several restaurants served us ice that had lots of coliform:

  • At the RAM restaurant in Fishers, one cup of ice had no coliform but another had 118 colonies of bacteria.
  • At a west side TGI Friday's (6915 W. 38th St.), testing showed some ice had 3 bacterial colonies while another sample had a reading of 299.
  • Two ice samples collected from 8 China Buffet (5393 E. 82nd St.) had total coliform bacterial levels of 238 and 474. 
  • And lab results from Rick's Café Boatyard on Eagle Creek Reservoir turned up 6 and then 488 colonies of coliform bacteria in the restaurant's ice.

(All readings are per 100 milliliters of ice, which is roughly equivalent to about one cup of ice cubes or 20 teaspoons of water.)

By comparison, a sample of water collected from a toilet at WTHR's first floor men's restroom had a coliform bacteria reading of 2.  That means nine of the 25 restaurants we visited (36%) served us at least one cup of ice containing more bacteria than the toilet water.

Remember, even one colony of bacteria - let alone hundreds - is too many, according to state and federal standards.

THE RISK

Coliform bacteria will not pose a health risk to most people, but they can cause illness in those with vulnerable immune systems. Very young children and the elderly are most at risk. Federal health officials say high bacteria levels in food (including ice) are responsible for the estimated 70 million cases of food-borne illness each year in the United States, and local researchers say the bacteria helps explain the flu-like symptoms some people get.

"Headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever -- those are the things we're talking about," said Ron Turco, director of Indiana's Water Resources Research Center at Purdue University. "Coliforms are telling us there are other disease causing bacteria that could be there, so you definitely don't want them in the ice."

While 488 bacterial colonies in your glass may sound like a lot, they are undetectable to the human eye. That's why we put them under a powerful microscope at Purdue's food sciences laboratory, so we could better understand exactly what microbiologists were looking for. Professor Arun Bhunia magnified the oblong bacterial cells one thousand times so we could see them "swimming" through the liquid.

"They are right there," Bhunia said as he pointed to the magnified image on a computer screen. "In large numbers, that should definitely be a concern."

And scientists found something else in some of the ice sample that poses an even greater concern.

One ice sample from the 8 China Buffet and one from the TGI Friday's each tested positive for e-coli bacteria, a more specific form of coliform bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal illness.

Both of those restaurants -- and several others -- emptied their ice machines and cleaned and sanitized them after WTHR contacted their mangers to share the test results. An inspector from the Marion County Health Department has been working with both restaurants to ensure their ice is safe for customers.

"SOMEONE DID NOT WASH THEIR HANDS"

Of the 13 restaurants that tested positive for the presence of coliform bacteria in their ice, none was able to explain how the contamination had occurred, and health officials say the source of contamination is difficult to determine.

"There would be so many routes it would be hard to describe," said Cundiff. "Proper handling should ensure that there is not any contamination. It's only when that process breaks down there should be a problem."

Unfortunately, the problems happen frequently, and restaurant inspection reports prove it.

Last year, local health inspectors cited dozens of central Indiana restaurants for critical health violations after they found the insides of their ice machines to be "dirty," "soiled," "rusted," "slimy" and/or "covered in residue." They found ice contaminated by buckets, plastic cups and ice scoops stored in the ice where they don't belong.

A Marion County Health inspector cited Rick's Café Boatyard restaurant seven times in 2007 for ice-related problems, including several unclean ice machines and "unsafe ice" contaminated by a bird's nest above an outdoor ice bin. The health department ordered that ice to be thrown away.

Most often, ice contamination is caused by poorly maintained ice machines or employees touching the ice, according to Turco.

"Ice machines have to be cleaned. Bacteria does not grow on ice real well because it's too cold, but they grow on everything around the ice -- on all the surfaces of the ice dispenser and those ice shovels people use, he explained. "That's where you can really get into trouble with ice is the handling, the contact with humans. That's a good source for the potential introduction of bacteria, especially if employees did not wash their hands properly and, in this situation, it looks like someone didn't wash their hands."

If WTHR's test results have you thinking "hold the ice," you are not alone.

"I would not have expected to see this on such a widespread basis," said Bruce Peavler, president of ESG Laboratories, where the ice samples were tested. "It does make me want to pay more attention to the ice in my cup before I drink it, and I might just skip it all together."

HOW WE CONDUCTED THE TEST

At each restaurant and bar, WTHR ordered a drink with a separate glass of ice or got ice from a self-serve ice machine. Taking care to not touch the ice or the inside of the glass, we poured the ice into a sterile container provided by ESG Laboratories, a lab certified by the state of Indiana to test drinking water. The ice was then delivered to ESG on the same day it was collected for testing and analysis.

Microbiologists at the lab allowed the ice to melt and tested each sample for total coliform bacteria levels. For any ice samples that tested positive for the presence of coliform, WTHR returned to the restaurant or bar of origin and collected another ice sample and the testing process was repeated. The lab also tested some samples -- especially those that showed a high level of total coliform bacteria -- for the presence of Escherichia coli (e-coli), a more specific form of coliform bacteria that can cause serious stomach illness. The tests provide information about the ice cubes the restaurants and bars served WTHR staff on the specific day the samples were taken, and WTHR contacted every bar and restaurant that tested positive for the presence of any bacteria.

RESTAURANTS RESPOND

While some restaurants did not return our phone calls, most responded quickly and took immediate action.

After ice tested positive for coliform bacteria at a west-side Cracker Barrel (3840 Eagle View Dr.), spokeswoman Julie Davis said the restaurant cleaned and sanitized its ice machine and served bagged ice until a new supply was ready. The company is also asking its staff to review proper ice machine cleaning procedures at hundreds of Cracker Barrel restaurants nationwide. "The health and safety of our guests and employees is a primacy concern," she told WTHR.

McDonald's also acted quickly, even as it questioned our test results at its restaurant near Castleton Square Mall.  Pam Fisher, McDonald's regional marketing manager, sent WTHR a statement that says "unfortunately we cannot determine if proper procedures were followed for credible sampling and lab analysis ... However, in an abundance of caution and to ensure the safety and quality of the ice served in our restaurant, we've taken extra precautionary measures and thoroughly cleaned and sanitized all ice machines in this restaurant."

Just hours after calling the Marion County Health Department to report our findings, a county health inspector visited TGI Friday's and 8 China Buffet to investigate further.

The inspector took two ice samples and two swab samples from inside 8 China Buffet's ice machine, and county lab results show all four tested positive for coliform bacteria. An additional test on one of the samples showed no e-coli was present.  Four samples taken by the county health inspector from the TGI Friday's ice machine after it had been sanitized showed the ice was free of coliform bacteria.  The inspector also tested a sample of ice that restaurant staff had collected prior to the cleaning and, like WTHR's two samples, it tested positive for the presence of coliform bacteria.   

TGI Friday's said the three positive bacterial readings (collected on three separate days) at its 38th Street restaurant were "an isolated incident" that the company took very seriously. "We took quick and appropriate measures to rectify this situation," said a company vice president.

View all test results to see which restaurants' ice tested positive for coliform bacteria and which tested clean.

View all restaurant responses

8 China Buffet

Applebee's

Cracker Barrel

McDonald's

Rick's Café Boatyard

St. Elmo

TGI Friday's

The RAM