ICE CREAM: High levels of bacteria found in ice cream

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Post by Glen on Sat Jun 20, 2009 2:57 pm

High levels of bacteria found in ice cream
Star tests prompt Toronto Public Health to investigate vendors of soft ice cream, yogurt
June 20, 2009

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Diana Zlomislic

Alarming levels of bacteria have been found in soft-serve ice cream sold by vendors across Toronto.

The Star tested vanilla ice cream and frozen yogurt samples from 14 sites, including mobile trucks, street kiosks and retail chains. Coliform bacteria exceeded federal limits at five of the vendors.

Toronto Public Health officials told the Star they plan to launch an investigation.

Scientists say high levels of bacteria set off alarm bells that the food product may be tainted. Additional tests, which the Star has ordered, will determine whether the soft-serve contains pathogens such as listeria and salmonella, which can cause serious health problems.

"The presence of coliform bacteria may indicate a problem with sanitation or refrigeration," says David McKeown, the city's medical officer of health.

"Until we do the detailed food investigation and inspection, we won't be able to pinpoint where the issue is. We will follow up promptly to inspect these vendors, to identify any sources of contamination, which could cause illness."

Prolonged diarrhea is one common symptom that shows the presence of the coliform bacteria in the digestive system.

Federal guidelines around food safety state that ice cream products should contain no more than 10 coliform organisms per gram.

The highest level the Star found – at 3,000 coliform organisms per gram – was purchased from JJ Dairy Cool, a mobile ice cream truck stationed outside Toronto City Hall on Queen St. W.

Owner George Koutsaris, one of Toronto's original ice cream truck vendors who's been selling cones for more than 40 years, says he prides himself on the cleanliness of his operation.

Koutsaris worries the problem may lie with his supplier of the liquid soft-serve mix, which he purchases by the bag. His daughter, who works with him, said their supplier is buying products from a new wholesaler.

"We sanitize every night," Koutsaris told the Star's David Bruser. "Is the bacteria in the machine or in the bag? I don't know."

The test results do indicate "there's a problem in how it's being made, processed, delivered or served," says Dr. Gerald Evans, a microbiologist at Queen's University.

He says physicians should instruct patients with weakened immune systems, including children and pregnant women, "to be careful before they consider ingesting it."

The second-highest result – 1,300 coliform organisms per gram – traced back to an outdoor snack shack at the base of the CN Tower.

"I'm shutting down the machines until we get this figured out," said Richard Silver, manager of Lemon Squeeze.

"We just passed a (city) health inspection on Monday."

The machines get a thorough cleaning every two to three days, he said. Silver orders his soft-serve mix directly from a dairy he believes provides a safe product.

A vanilla sample from a Yogen Fruz outlet at the Simcoe Place food court near Metro Convention Centre yielded a coliform count of 730 organisms per gram, well above the federal guideline of 10.

"It's really bad, I guess. I don't know. I guess. I don't know. Is it?" said Carlos Campo, vice-president of operations, when notified of the result last night.

All the machines are disassembled and sanitized on a daily basis, he noted.

"Every day. Every single day," Campo says. "That's why I'm kind of worried about what's happened. I don't understand. We'll have to check with the store and see what the problem could be."

A technical adviser from the company followed up with the Star to assure that he will look into the problem.

Two other ice cream shops in Etobicoke tested above the federal guidelines for coliforms but the results were significantly lower than the first three.

A vanilla cone purchased from a Dairy Queen at 786 The Queensway had a bacteria count of 50 while a soft-serve sample from Tom's Dairy Freeze, just up the road, had a count of 20.

"I really have no explanation for that," said Sebastian Distesano, one of the owners of Tom's, a mom-and-pop shop that has been around for decades. "I'm glad you brought it to my attention."

Dairy Queen headquarters did not respond to a request for comment.

A lab in Greater Toronto accredited for microbiological testing analyzed the samples, which the Star collected in a three-hour period on Thursday. Vanilla soft-serve from each of the 14 vendors was placed in a sterile, self-sealing bag provided by the lab. All samples were stored in a refrigerated cooler and taken to the facility immediately after collection.

Monitoring soft-serve products may prove trickier with mobile vendors that don't have a permanent address. The city schedules an annual inspection with truck vendors for licensing purposes. Some officials say that's not enough to ensure the safety of food products sold within.

"This adds fuel to the issue we have," says Gerry Lawrence, a food safety manager with Toronto Public Health.

"What I'd like to see happen is blitzes of these types of vehicles and (regular) sampling."

Diana Zlomislic can be reached at (416) 869-4472 or

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Post by Andrea on Wed Jun 24, 2009 3:14 pm

I guess the Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia I had last night is safe!
Very Happy

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ICE CREAM: High levels of bacteria found in ice cream Empty updated ice cream tests and bacteria levels

Post by Glen on Sat Jun 27, 2009 10:04 am

Ice cream tests show 'hazardous' bacteria levels
The Kew Gardens snack bar on the boardwalk had very high coliform levels in its soft-serve ice cream. The machine was shut down and sanitized.
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High levels of bacteria found in ice cream
Alarming levels of bacteria have been found in soft-serve ice cream sold by vendors across Toronto.
'Real concern' of listeria, microbiologist warns
Jun 27, 2009 04:33 AM
Comments on this story (11)
Diana Zlomislic

The city's tainted ice cream problem has escalated, an ongoing Toronto Star investigation shows. New tests reveal much higher bacteria levels among seasonal operators – one sample from a popular vendor in the Beach contained a million coliform organisms per gram. The federal guideline is 10.

"Oh my God. This is not good," said Rick Holley, a leading Canadian food microbiologist.

Several of the vendors identified in the Star's results took immediate action, in one case cleaning the ice cream machine, in another pulling two trucks out of service.

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."

Coliform tests are used as a measure of sanitation and food safety. The probability for harmful pathogens such as listeria or salmonella is higher when coliform numbers grossly exceed federal food safety guidelines, Holley said.

"And that's why (Health Canada) asks for compliance with that standard, so we reduce the risk."

Presented with the new findings from samples collected on Sunday, Toronto Medical Officer of Health David McKeown said "we will conduct inspections to try to pinpoint the source of the contamination."

Within the past two weeks, the Star has tested the soft-serve ice cream of 25 vendors at an accredited laboratory. Samples were taken from 14 seasonal operators and 11 year-round outlets. Seasonal operators had higher bacteria readings, with more than half grossly exceeding food safety guidelines.

The first round of tests found bacteria levels as high as 3,000 coliform organisms per gram. The day after the Star published the results, we collected samples from 11 more operators. Lab results revealed astronomically higher levels, including two samples with coliform counts around 200,000 organisms per gram and one at 1 million.

The million count occurred at Kew Gardens' iconic snack bar on the Beach boardwalk. After learning of the result on Thursday, 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."

Ella Willius, 22, had already finished her cone from the snack bar when told of the result. "I have no idea what to eat anymore," she said. Her friend, Fabian France, 26, said "wow" several times before looking for a bin to drop his half-eaten cone.

Toronto Public Health launched a probe after the Star's initial tests were published last Saturday.

McKeown said the city's tests confirmed evidence of bacterial contamination found in the first batch of tests ordered by the Star.

"We have asked the vendors to correct those practices and we will be doing some follow-up inspections and testing," he said.

The city's tests of three vendors cited in the Star did not detect human pathogens like listeria, which killed and sickened people in the Maple Leaf Foods outbreak.

"These findings do warrant a public health response but I would urge you to keep it in perspective," said McKeown. "I don't think there's a reason at this point to keep ice cream away from kids and I think people should enjoy the summer."

McKeown said Public Health has had no related reports of illness.

It's worth noting that with pathogens like listeria, symptoms, which include vomiting, nausea and diarrhea, occur up to 70 days after contaminated food is consumed, with the average incubation period of 30 days, public health officials said.

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.

"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."

Toronto Public Health does not routinely sample finished food products. Trucks are inspected annually as part of their licensing. Inspectors examine the vendor's freshwater and waste water holding tanks, the refrigeration system and the vehicle's cleanliness. They check the product's temperature, the server's hygiene and ensure the food is from an approved source.

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."

Canadians ate an average of 12 servings of soft-serve ice cream last year, up from nine in 2007.

Public appetite for the stuff was on full display last weekend as warm weather drew lines of people to mobile vendors along the waterfront.

Two trucks on the lakeshore near Sunnyside Pavilion, both owned by Mrs. Softy Inc., exceeded federal guidelines. One sample obtained from a truck with the trading name "Lonestar" showed a coliform count of 190,000; the other, from a truck called "Super Ice Cream," had a count of 25,000.

Company spokesperson Kiki Bianchi responded to news of the results by email: "Following the uncorroborated allegation by the Star regarding two of our vehicles, we have, out of an abundance of caution, decided to proactively remove the two trucks identified by the Star. By doing so, we stand by our spotless record of passing annual testing as required by law."

Bianchi said she is contacting her supplier and will seek independent testing.

At last weekend's Ribfest in Woodbine Park, an ice cream truck dispensed a soft-serve product that had a 1,100 coliform count. Ribfest officials would not identify the owner of the truck.

Dairy Village, an ice cream truck stationed on Bloor St., just west of Bathurst St., tested positive with 200,000 coliform organisms per gram. Owner Philip Demos could not be reached for comment.

The Star's investigation of soft-serve ice cream has sent a shudder through the mobile vending community.

There are 112 licensed mobile ice cream vendors in the city.

"I wasn't very happy about that article," said Antonia Prountzaki, who runs three ice cream trucks under the name Master Soft & Delight. She's been at it 25 years. "Just because one truck is bad doesn't mean we're all bad."

She's right.

The Star tested ice cream from all her trucks, including the one she operates herself at the foot of Bay St. and Queens Quay. Lab results indicated the samples were virtually free of coliform.

"This is my living. And I'm proud of myself ... because I've never had a problem," Prountzaki said.

What's her secret? She never lets a truck leave her dock without a thorough scrubbing every morning.

"I'm saying to everybody: `Guys, clean your machines. Clean your trucks.' If someone gets sick. ... All of us, all of us, we are finished."

If you're concerned about a soft-serve vendor or think you may have a related illness, call Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600 to register a complaint. Diana Zlomislic can be reached by email at or by phone at 416-869-4472

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