NewsCenter 16’s exclusive three-part investigation “Testing the Waters”, takes a microscopic look at the ice you consume while eating at local restaurants.
As we discovered, many of the seemingly “pure” cubes of ice you receive in your drink cup, are actually bogged down with potentially harmful bacteria.
In May, NewsCenter 16 randomly selected 18 eateries across Berrien, Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties to be tested, on two separate occasions, for a variety of bacteria, including Escherichia coli (E. coli).
We visited bars, took a gamble at a casino, traveled through drive-thru restaurants, sat at all-you-can-eat buffets and even stopped by a swanky four-star fine dining establishment.
"Can I have an ice tea and a cup of ice to go,” a NewsCenter 16 crew asked while collecting an ice sample.
All 18 samples were transported in sterilized coolers to Scientific Methods Inc., a Granger-based state of Indiana and EPA-certified laboratory.
There microbiologist Dr. Rebecca Wong used a sterile vacuum to deposit each sample on a membrane pad. Each membrane was then nestled into a Petri dish, each dish tucked inside a zip-locked bag, which Dr. Wong stored in an incubator for 24-hours. In that time, we uncovered results that even made our scientist uneasy.
"There’s absolutely something wrong, it's quite scary when I see that result,” Dr. Wong said.
Nationally the EPA mandates city water to have zero total coliform bacteria and E. coli colonies, E. coli, a microorganism found in human waste.
"The E. coli absolutely should not be there, not even one, not a single one. None should be in your drinking water,” Dr. Wong remarked.
Therefore we were surprised to find multiple forms of bacteria at Brothers Bar & Grill at the Eddy Street Commons in South Bend. According to our laboratory results, our first visit produced two E. coli colonies in just one bar glass. Although our second visit contained no E. coli, it did identify 29 coliform bacteria colonies.
"Can you make a comment or is that something that would have to come from the general manager,” NewsCenter 16’s Kevin Lewis asked. "No I can't make any comments on camera,” a shift manager replied.
Following our first report Tuesday, Brothers Bar & Grill COO Scott Severson issued this statement.
"We are very proud of the efforts we make to work with local authorities (both health and other), to ensure our operational procedures not only meet, but exceed any and all laws, codes, and regulations for the safety of not only our customers, but our employees as well. In terms of our health record, we've never had a confirmed case of a foodborne illness in the 22 years we've been in business which spans across 19 locations, and 10 states."
Even so, our investigation prompted Brothers Bar & Grill to test its ice maker and soda machine for total coliform bacteria and E. coli. The analysis, performed by South Bend-based Valley Lea Laboratories, Inc., found no trace of bacteria. You can view that lab report by clicking on the document above.
Bacteria levels were only worse at Soho Japanese Bistro in Granger’s Heritage Square shopping complex. In one cup of ice we collected five E. coli colonies, in another, 333 cases of coliform bacteria.
"We are striving to do everything we can, make everything as safe for the public as possible. So yes we'll go back, review our policies and fix the problem,” Soho’s general manager, who didn’t want to be identified, said.
Despite high numbers at Brothers and Soho, the Steak ‘n Shake along Pipestone Road in Benton Harbor couldn't be beat, with 3,010 total coliform colonies in one cup alone.
The Golden Dragon Restaurant along S. 11th Street in Niles was the worst offender when it came to E. coli. The facility, which is not associated with South Bend's three Golden Dragon Restaurants, harbored seven E. coli colonies in one cup, in another 20.
"Does it disturb you knowing there's fecal matter in your ice,” NewsCenter 16’s Kevin Lewis asked an employee who refused to give her name. “Yeah we are disturbed, we don't know what's going on,” the employee replied.
"What do you say to customers that see these numbers? What do you say to make them feel better about coming to your facility in the future,” Kevin asked the woman who proceeded to hide in the kitchen, refusing to answer any further questions about the facility’s dirty ice. Remember, E. coli is directly associated with fecal matter.
"Some employee may go to the bathroom and may not wash their hands or do not clean properly. If you have a very dirty hand, one touch is enough to give you that number,” Dr. Wong added.
Don't believe us? We took a closer look under a scientific microscope where hundreds of potentially sickening bacteria, not one of which should be in your ice, quite literally came to life.
"You have this stuff swimming in your cup and it's not supposed to be there. These restaurants should definitely take some action to find out where this contamination is coming from,” Dr. Wong said.
Some eateries however can't say they haven't been warned. Take CJ's Pub in downtown South Bend where we discovered our plastic cup of ice had a total coliform number "too numerous to count.” A visit just 20 days earlier uncovered 23 E. coli colonies.
"Does that surprise you,” NewsCenter 16’s Kevin Lewis asked a bartender. “Yes that surprises me a lot! I don't know how that could be. Maybe something may have fallen in there somehow, but that's true of any restaurant or any bar with an ice bin,” the longtime bartender replied.
During a phone call, co-owner Cindy Medich later told us, the bacteria we found must have come from the commercial bagging distributor that supplies CJ’s with ice.
Yet according to St. Joseph County Health Department records, the popular watering hole has been cited three times since 2010 for ice violations. In one case, inspectors found a mysterious liquid, "dripping into the customer ice bin.” Another citation identified old ice sitting at the bottom of the bar's hand washing sink.
Then there's the New China Family Restaurant on South Bend's south side where an ice dispenser dropped 63 coliform and three E. coli colonies into our ice cup.
Like CJ's Pub, the all-you-can-eat buffet is no stranger to health department inspectors with seven ice violations in the last five years alone. Among those citations, “loose algae, an unidentifiable blackened residue and old food debris,” which were all found littered along the restaurant's ice maker.
"I think disgusting is a good word. Everybody kind of knows what E. coli is and kind of knows where it comes from, so the fact that it’s there is kind of disgusting,” St. Joseph County Health Officer Dr. Thomas Felger said.
THE DOUBLE STANDARD:
Although the FDA does regulate and test commercial ice bagging facilities, not one government agency oversees the microbiology of ice served in restaurants, gas stations and bars.
"You would be looking at an incredible expense if this was suddenly added to the inspection list,” Dr. Felger mentioned.
Currently cash-strapped county health departments across Indiana and Michigan are not required to scientifically examine ice at area restaurants. Instead, inspectors perform visual assessments, but the issue remains, bacteria cannot be detected without microbiological testing.
"You’re not going to see anything. You might smell something, but as far as seeing it, these are microscopic, I mean these are tiny,” Dr. Felger added.
For example, nothing about the ice that poured out of New China Family Restaurant’s soda machine appeared questionable. That was until we placed a one milliliter sample under a scientific microscope and voila, E. coli could be found stirring like a school of fish in water.
"It’s an issue. It indicates that you have some kind of contamination. You want to know the source; you want to know where the contamination comes from,” Dr. Wong said.
Interestingly enough, while ice is essentially unregulated, its liquid state is heavily controlled. The EPA mandates all city water to contain zero total coliform or E. coli colonies at all times. In fact, if any of the three water filtration plants in South Bend detect just one E. coli colony, the city is legally required to issue a boil order for the 120,000 residents it serves. Don’t forget, the dirtiest ice we tested had E. coli more than 20 times this nation's boil order threshold.
"That not only tells me the ice is contaminated, but I also worry about the restaurant’s routine, its meat and its buns. It kind of initiates a lot of scary thoughts,” Dr. Wong added.
To take matters one step further, NewsCenter 16 retrieved toilet water from the men’s first floor restroom. Although our 100 ml sample did contain 87 coliform colonies, it detected no E. coli and was therefore cleaner than eight of the 18 restaurants we tested, that's 44-percent!
"Having seen the list, I might pick and choose where I go a little differently,” Dr. Felger said.
THE “YUCK” FACTOR:
According to the EPA, the likelihood of getting ill form the levels and forms of E. coli and coliform bacteria NewsCenter 16 found are minimal. However, children under the age of five, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems (i.e. people with long-term illnesses like cancer or AIDS) are more susceptible. All in all, health advocates say our findings serve more as a "yuck" factor than a true health risk for consumers.
"But it's the right of the consumer that when you walk into a restaurant, you pay for good and safe food that you want to enjoy. You don't want to go home and feel uncomfortable,” Dr. Wong concluded.
NewsCenter 16 made multiple phone calls to the Golden Dragon Buffet, Steak ‘n Shake corporate headquarters, the New China Buffet and the Asian Grill Buffet for comment. However as of Wednesday evening, not one facility has accepted our offer, which still stands.
In total, only four of the 18 restaurants we randomly tested had absolutely no trace of bacteria. That A-list includes Clementine's Too in St. Joseph, Long John Silver's in Niles, LaSalle Grill in downtown South Bend and Taco Bell on W. McKinley Ave. in Mishawaka.
HOW WE CONDUCTED THE TEST:
During each of our 18 restaurant and bar visits, NewsCenter 16 ordered a drink with a separate cup of ice or got ice from a hands-free ice machine. Making every effort not to touch the ice, lid and inside of the cup, NewsCenter 16 stored each sample in an individually sterilized cooler during transport. Once at Scientific Methods Inc., a state of Indiana and EPA-certified facility, hand sanitizer and latex gloves were worn while pouring each sample into a sterile 100 ml test kit.
Microbiologists then tested each sample for total coliform bacteria, E. coli, of which 14 restaurants testing positive. Using that data, NewsCenter 16 returned to the bars and restaurants in question. There we repeated our sampling and testing technique to ensure positive results were not a stand-alone incident. Our results present information about the ice each facility gave NewsCenter 16 on the day the sample was collected.
1.) For a full look at Scientific Methods Inc.’s findings, just click on the first link below.
2.) You can also view Berrien, Elkhart and St. Joseph County Health Department inspection reports for the seven restaurants in this story, via attachments 2-8 below.