It’s the holidays. Parties are in full swing: business events, family gatherings, friendly get-togethers, and year-end celebrations. All of which are likely to include the use of ice for consumption—to cool your teen’s soda pop, blend into your frozen cocktail, or provide a bed for shrimp and other chilled seafood. In fact, according to the International Packaged Ice Association (IPIA), people consume more ice—nearly two pounds per person per day—than they do bread.
But, while FDA recognizes ice as food, requiring manufacturers to follow GMPs and food labeling regulations, there are few to no specific packaged-ice processing regulations at the federal level. Nor do regulations cover ice produced on-premise at retail (e.g., supermarkets, gas stations, campgrounds, etc.)—even though these make up more than half of all packaged ice sales in the U.S. and Canada. Thus, although the food codes of the two countries define ice as a food and studies have shown that more than 80% of consumers who buy ice, buy it for consumption, there has, historically, been little oversight of ice as food.
Does it matter? It certainly did at a University of Pennsylvania-Cornell football game in the ’80s, at which band members, football players, students, and spectators came down with gastrointestinal illness, which was eventually associated with the ice used in the soda. According to the CDC report, the ice was traced to a manufacturer in southeastern Pennsylvania whose wells had been flooded by waters from Conestoga Creek following a torrential rainfall.
High concentrations of fecal coliforms were found in the ice and the well water used to produce the ice. Based on distribution records and the Pennsylvania attack rate, more than 5,000 people may have become ill from consumption of the up to 300 tons of ice produced in the week following the flood.
Although that incident occurred in 1987, and ice has rarely been implicated as a vehicle of infection, IPIA states, “Ice can go bad.” Because it is a food, ice can become contaminated with bacteria and/or viruses that can cause illness. Even though frozen, ice has been found to contain a wide spectrum of bacteria, from Salmonella and E. coli to Hepatitis A. But, because we generally don’t think of ice as food, we rarely think of the consumption of this “forgotten food” as a possible cause of a foodborne illness.
“Ice Is Food” Safety.
Given all this, what can one do to ensure that the ice consumed is safe; and what best practices can—and do—packaged ice manufacturers implement to ensure food safety of their ice? To find out, we visited the Denver, Colo., facility of ReddyIce, whose Regional Vice President Brian Washnock is on the IPIA Board of Directors. The company has 58 manufacturing facilities and 67 distribution centers across the U.S.
The first thing that became clear in speaking with ReddyIce Market Manager Joey Tasher and observing the process is that the manufacture of packaged ice is incredibly more complex than the home version of filling an ice cube tray from the kitchen tap, or even the automated process of refrigerator icemakers. Following the plant’s process from testing and filtering of incoming water through blending, forming, dewatering, drying, bagging, palleting, storing, then transporting to retail brought a new perspective on ice ... along with the desire to trash the ice cubes and trays currently sitting in my freezer (especially those at the bottom which have likely absorbed odors and flavors, and possible contaminates, for longer than I care to ponder.)
The ice of this ReddyIce plant is made from Denver city water, which is regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) administered by the EPA and the state. Although the incoming water is required to meet SDWA standards, ReddyIce also tests it every month to ensure its safety. For quality, the company puts the water through a filtration system, which includes a water softener, carbon filter, and reverse osmosis. The filtered water is then blended, in a 60,000-gallon tank, with city water at a 60/40 ratio. The first three steps of filtration increase the clarity and quality of the water, while the reblending brings chlorine back into the water to help prevent bacteria. The last stage of filtration is then the exposure of the water to UV rays which ensures that no bacteria developed in the filtration process.
In 1998, because no uniform manufacturing standards existed, the IPIA developed and adopted the Packaged Ice Quality Control Standards (PIQCS) Program. PIQCS is based on the FDA’s Federal Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for food products, but is tailored specifically to packaged ice. The PIQCS program is a required condition for membership in the IPIA. Additionally, the IPIA mandated in 2011 that its members adopt a higher quality level standard for monitoring the safety of ice throughout their manufacturing and distribution processes, the PIQCS-Plus system that includes Hazard Analysis/Critical Control Point (HACCP). Member firms are encouraged to have at least one manager who has completed a HACCP Manager Certification Course. PIQCS-Plus with HACCP Program is a condition for membership in the IPIA and as mandated in the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law in early 2011. This provides a new level of safety and quality for member firms.
The temperature of the incoming water must be continually measured in order to accurately set the freezing time. “The incoming water is warmer in the summer, so it takes longer to freeze,” Tasher said. So this must be taken into account in the process.
Once this process is complete, it is time to form the ice. While homemade ice generally comes in cubes, the primary style of ice produced by ReddyIce is “tube ice.” The plant has four ice-making machines which operate consecutively for continuous flow of ice through the system. To make each ice tube:
- Water flows into a tall tube which has a thin pipe going through the center. The pipe contains a liquid ammonia refrigerant which freezes the ice from the inside out.
- The outside of the tube is warmed just enough to unfreeze the outer surface, enabling the ice to drop from the tube.
- As it drops out, a gear rotates to cut each tube into 2¼-inch cylinders.
- During this process, the water continues to flow, with excess water recirculating into the equipment. “If you keep the water flowing, it freezes clear; if it stays still, even though it is filtered, particles form and the ice can become cloudy,” Tasher said.
- The newly formed ice tubes then drop into a horizontally augered bin which moves them to an incline slide.
- From the slide, the ice tubes tumble through a de-watering reel and then drop onto an eight-foot-wide, 50-yard-long conveyor belt in a 5°F blast freezer. The ice is laid out in a single layer and slowly vibrates along the screened conveyor belt to dry the ice and prevent clumping.
- Evaporative condensers blow -10°F air from above, while plows continually operate to keep the ice flat on the belt in a single layer.
- From here, the dry ice tubes drop into a storage bin where a stainless steel rake levels the ice—up to 100 tons—into consistent layers.
- When all flows as it should, the process to harvest ice—from water to ice tube—takes 1,100 seconds.
- Once harvested, it is time for packaging: the ice tubes are once again put through an auger, or “snow reel.” “The dryness creates snow, so the ice is put through a giant tumbler to shake off the snow,” Tasher said.
- The finished tubes flow through a volumetric drum to weigh the correct amount and a metal detector as a final check before packaging.
- This ReddyIce plant has three packaging lines. One is completely, robotically automated, and two are manual, used primarily for keeping up with demand during the hot season.
- Tube ice is bagged in 5-, 10- or 20-pound bags, sealed with an 18-gauge wire tie, palletized, and placed in a 15°F-20°F storage vault.
With the exception of the manual lines, at which point the ice is in a sealed bag, the entire process is a closed system, adding significantly to the final food safety of the product. (Compare that to the exposed ice in your home freezer, and it’s not hard to understand the food quality and safety distinctions.)
Because ice is food, it must follow food labeling requirements. Its nutritional panel, however, has 0 for everything, “except sodium. City water has one ounce of sodium,” Tasher said. Following its recall procedures, each bag is labeled with a production tag including the plant location, line number, and date.
At no point in the process is the ice allowed to sit at ambient temperature (which by ReddyIce terms is 65°F) for more than 60 seconds. So when ready to be transported, the ice is moved by forklift from the storage freezer to the refrigerated truck—where the temperature is continually monitored and must never exceed 25°F. At the peak of its season, ReddyIce may have as many as 24 direct-store delivery drivers and four distributors—with 2,000 bags of ice per truck—taking its ice to retail each day.
How Ice Is Regulated ... Or Not
While we rarely think about ice as being a food, FDA does regulate packaged ice as food, requiring that it be produced according to FDA’s GMP regulations. This means that packaged ice manufacturers must produce, hold, and transport ice in clean and sanitary conditions, monitor the cleanliness and hygiene of employees, use properly cleaned and maintained equipment, and use water that is safe and sanitary. When FDA inspects packaged ice manufacturing plants, it looks at such things as plumbing, to ensure it prevents contamination of the ice water supply or stored ice; safe and sanitary aspects of the water supply; and sanitary maintenance of the manufacturing facility and grounds.
However ... FDA does not inspect small packaged ice producers, such as convenience stores, that make and package ice directly for the consumer and only for intrastate sales. FDA also does not inspect food service establishments that make ice for direct use (e.g., for drinks or cooling food). Although these establishments are subject to the FDA Food Code and state and local authority, such regulations can vary significantly and have little actual oversight—a key reason that IPIA recommends that consumers “stay away from ice stored in open bins, as in some hotel facilities [and from] ice produced and bagged in the back room of convenience stores” as both have more potential for human contact and contamination.
A “Daily Visual Management” board of wall charts tracks each ReddyIce-specified value of the process. Values are monitored and tests conducted every 30 minutes for such food safety and quality controls as foreign object presence, bag seal integrity, ring closure, etc. ReddyIce also conducts a drop weight test. That is, just as a consumer may drop a bag on the ground to break up ice that solidified in transport to their home or other such thawing/refreezing, ReddyIce slams bags onto the concrete flooring to test their durability against such actions.
To maintain continuous monitoring, three electronic control panels are stationed at points throughout the process, enabling control of every piece of equipment in the plant—from filter to condenser to storage-bin temperature.
Probably the most impressive feature of the manufacturer’s non-required food safety initiatives is its multi-tabbed Plant & Equipment Sanitation and Maintenance binder—its written food safety manual that goes beyond even that which is newly required by the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Preventive Controls rule.
Among the many sections of the binder are production sanitation, with daily and weekly checklists for CCPs and every piece of equipment; results of the in-house plant inspections, which are performed annually and required for IPIA certification; CCP tracking, which are focused on temperature of the ice storage bin, packaging area, and trucks; site-specific SSOPs; contact-surface letters—required of all vendors; HACCP, food defense, and security programs; pest control, testing, and source water record sections; etc.
The manual also includes tabs for the recall plan and customer complaint log—both of which are historically somewhat extraneous. That is, in Tasher’s 17 years in the industry, he has seen only two complaints and no recalls. But, just as the company goes beyond regulation to ensure food safety, it doesn’t rely on history to predict the future. Rather it takes extensive precautions, performs annual mock recalls, and trains every employee on HACCP, food safety, and food defense—with signed records of the training.
A New Plant.
The Denver plant recently moved into a new facility after its 1944-built plant was procured by the city through eminent domain for the building of a light rail system. Although this meant that ReddyIce had to make a fairly quick, unanticipated move, the construction of a new building—at which it just started production in June—enabled the company to integrate new equipment, rethink the layout, and add capacity.
In fact, one can simply look at the exterior of the two buildings to see the efficiencies that have been created. While the production lines, storage, and transport areas of the old plant extended across the building, the new streamlined system flows in a compact, low-footprint manner, enabling tighter controls and less space—while increasing production capacity from 240 tons per day to 360 tons per day. Ice is a seasonal product, with ReddyIce selling 49% of its annual volume from May through August. During that time, the plant generally produces the full 360 tons, six days a week; off-season, it produces closer to 200 tons per day, four days a week.
Tasher has worked in the packaged ice industry for more than 17 years. How has this impacted his perception of ice as food? “I rarely will consume ice at any venue unless I know it has followed IPIA standards,” he said. How does he know if it does? If it’s packaged ice, it will have a label; if it’s not pre-packaged, he said, “I have a list.” He will use non-IPIA ice in a cooler, but he won’t eat it.
“Not only has it impacted me,” Tasher added, “I try to educate all the people I know.” It is an education that is typical of ReddyIce, which is so concerned about the food safety aspects of ice, that the company has partnered with IPIA to make a push at the federal level—for increased regulation of this “forgotten food.”
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photos by Brian Walski