Posted on: April 26, 2021 |

Packaged ice is considered a food item by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and it’s regulated as such. Like other foods or drinks packaged for consumption, labels must be accurate, and food manufacturing and storage conditions must be sanitary. However, not all packaged ice is the same. Here’s what you need to know about FDA regulations on packaged ice, and sanitation risks.

What You Need to Know About FDA Regulations on Packaged Ice

How Can Ice Be Contaminated?

It’s important to remember that, though ice is often used to keep foods cool and stop bacteria like Salmonella and E.Coli from growing, cold temperatures don’t actually kill them. Some particularly resilient viruses, such as norovirus, can live on contaminated ice for long periods. Since a person can get sick from ingesting as few as 10 viral norovirus particles—while bacterial infections from Salmonella typically require exposure to thousands of bacterium—and since norovirus often lives in contaminated water, it’s a particular concern for ice.

With this in mind, ice can become contaminated in three main ways, described below. We’ll discuss these further as we compare which type of ice is the most sanitary.

  • The ice is made from unclean water that is contaminated with bacteria, viruses or harmful chemicals.
  • The ice machine or storage area isn’t cleaned regularly, causing mold and slimy bacterial biofilm to build up on surfaces and contaminate ice.
  • Unclean hands, glasses, or ice scoops come in contact with the ice and contaminate it.

All of these situations are monitored in some form, though different types of ice are subject to different rules.

Ice House America ice vending machines use a sophisticated purification system and straight-to-consumer delivery system to keep ice clean.
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FDA Regulations and Sanitary Water Sources

The FDA regulates packaged ice in the same way as many other packaged food items. According to the FDA, “This means that 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.”

FDA Inspections

This also means that ice manufacturers are subject to inspections, just as other food manufacturers are. Inspections for ice manufacturing facilities are particularly focused on the water source, and ensuring that the water being used is sanitary.

If the water source is contaminated, the ice will be too. Though FDA inspectors do their best to monitor packaged ice and their origin water sources for purity, water pollution is a widespread problem. Especially during floods, when municipal wastewater systems struggle to deal with high volumes of water, wastewater can contaminate potable water sources, resulting in contaminated drinking water and ice. In 1987, 5,000 people were sickened from ice contaminated in this way.

Clean Water Act and the EPA

Regulatory developments such as the Clean Water Act and Water Quality Act of 1987 have increased focus on monitoring waterways, cleaning up contaminants, and enforcing regulations. However, water quality still remains far outside of the Clean Water Act’s targets; an EPA assessment in 2017 found that over half of U.S. stream and rivers, about 70 percent of lakes, ponds and reservoirs, and 90 percent of ocean and coastal areas are contaminated with toxic levels of heavy metals, algal blooms, bacteria, trash and other contaminants.

Packaged Ice and Purification Standards

Many packaged ice manufacturers take care to monitor water quality and sanitize water before it becomes ice. Ice manufacturers following the International Packaged Ice Association’s (IPIA) Packaged Ice Quality Control Standards (PIQCS) Program uphold high purity standards, and have lower rates of contamination. However, the IPIA is an independent industry organization, and packaged ice manufacturers are not required to follow PIQCS or other independent standards.

Commercial Ice Makers and Contamination

In many cases, retailers produce their own ice on-site from commercial ice makers. Though this type of ice is packaged and sold to consumers, it doesn’t fall under the same FDA regulations. This type of ice is contaminated more often. A study of 156 on-site packaged ice samples in California showed that over half were contaminated with yeast and mold, more than a third were contaminated with Staphylococci bacteria, and nearly one-fifth were contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

Sanitation standards for packaged ice varies widely between manufacturers and between retailers. Ice and water vending machines equipped with micron filtration, reverse osmosis, ozonation, ultraviolet light cleansing and other purification measures can help retailers eliminate risks that can damage their reputation and consumer base. While still producing ice on-site and enjoying higher margins, retailers and consumers can both benefit from safe, sanitary ice.