In part two of the Toronto Star's investigation of soft-serve ice cream safety reporters have stumbled upon a snack bar with an extraordinary amount of coliform in the treats. The biggest offender found during the blitz was the Kew Gardens snack bar (with coliform above 1000000 cfu/gram). When I was growing up, I probably visited that snack bar 10-15 times a summer.
When asked about the 1000000 cfu/g measure, Rick Holley, microbiologist from U of Manitoba responded:
"Oh my God. This is not good," With results this high, "the product is hazardous," said Holley, adding the spectre of serious health implications is also magnified.
"The real concern here is listeria," he said. "And it's going to happen."
After learning of the result on Thursday, [Kew Gardens snack bar] manager Danny Foulidis ordered the machine shut down and sanitized.
"We've always been a clean establishment. We've never had an issue. If there's something we need to change to make things better, it's not a problem on our part."
During the past week, Gerry Lawrence, food safety manager at Toronto Public Health, has fielded calls from worried residents asking how to tell if soft ice cream is safe.
His advice: "If I'm buying ice cream for a youngster, I don't think I want to buy it from somebody that has greasy hands or isn't wearing a clean smock or even a baseball cap."
Holley, a member of a federal advisory panel struck in response to the Maple Leaf Foods listeria crisis, chuckles at the suggestion that protection comes down to gauging the cleanliness of an operator. "That's not the complete picture. You might have one person of that kind of appearance who plays a very minor role in handling products that are risky, such as these are.
Great quote by Holley after a poor suggestion from Lawrence. Visual cleanliness isn't a good indicator of anything, especially whether someone is going to get sick.
"It really does require that the folks who are responsible for making sure that all of the licence requirements of these people are met are conscientious in what they do and look at the whole picture. Whether or not they have time to do that is another issue."
The Star goes on to report on one of the factors that could lead to soft-serve contamination, the infamous O-ring.
Health inspectors generally do not check the inner mechanisms of machines, and experts warn that's where the danger lies, particularly in a $1.85 rubber O-ring that seals an area around a drive shaft that spins the ice cream. Michael Minor, former president of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors, said a worn ring can cause contamination to seep into the ice cream.
"Product that leaks from the refrigerated mixing vat into the back of the machine because of a faulty O-ring can be pulled back in to the soft-serve mix through reverse flow," Minor said.
Manufacturers suggest the rings be replaced every three months.
Minor is concerned some operators lack the knowledge or will to maintain their machines, which is central to assuring a safe product.
"This is not rocket science. It's not statistical analysis. This is a machine that needs attention and you need to understand it."
Holley and Minor both touch on one of the tenets of food safety culture: Operators need to know the risks associated with their products and how to manage them. Good operators know about sanitation, equipment maintenance and selecting good suppliers.