WATERLOO - Hot summer days, soft serve ice cream and…coliform bacteria?
All three go together, at least according to recent inspections of soft-serve ice cream machines by the Black Hawk County Health Department.
In June and July, health officials tested one soft-serve ice cream machine from every restaurant in Waterloo and Cedar Falls for two forms of bacteria. Of the 30 tested, nearly 47 percent exceeded state standards for coliform bacteria, a pathogen which indicates that harmful bacteria like E. coli may be present.
The public can view the full results by contacting the health department.
Health officers also conducted a standard plate count test, which measures bacteria that poses less of a public health risk. The department found 23 percent of the machines exceeded state limits.
"We get a little more interest in coliform because they're more of a problem, and they're more suggestive of a hygenic problem," said Mark Linda, environmental health director for the department.
Linda said there was no correlation between frequency of cleanings and violations, which suggests employees may not be thoroughly sanitizing the machines.
The good news, he said, is that chances are your next soft-serve ice cream cone will meet state health standards.
"Waterloo-Cedar Falls is likely serving the safest soft-serve ice cream in the state of Iowa," he said, noting that no other county in the state does similar testing
Health officers returned to the offending restaurants and ice cream shops until every machine tested was in compliance. After a second test, all passed the standard plate count bacteria test, and only five establishments remained in violation of coliform bacteria state limits.
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The department eventually shut down two ice cream machines, one at Wishbone and the other at Dairy Queen on University Avenue, after the businesses failed a third test.
Wishbone simply rid themselves of their ice cream machine because it wasn't a big part of their business, Linda said.
The Dairy Queen failed a fourth test and their machine remains shut down. However, because the health department only tested one machine from each business, the other two soft-serve machines at the store remain operational.
Owner Jill Wait said all the machines are cleaned twice daily and she's never had a problem like this before. She replaced the hoses and fittings on the offending machine when the problem persisted, to no avail.
"Next year will be my 25th year, and this is totally baffling to me," Wait said.
She said she's still waiting for results from a sample of the ice cream mix itself, which could be the source of the contamination. Previous tests measured the product after it had been in the mixer. She also said the problematic machine, which is 22 years old. is her oldest and may simply need to be replaced.
Cleaning a soft-serve machine is a time-consuming, labor intensive process. At the Wendy's on La Porte Road, which passed the inspection, employees spend 20 to 30 minutes cleaning the machines twice daily, said co-manager Michael Concannon.
Besides cleaning surface areas, the machine's moving parts are removed and sanitized, as are the valve systems. Employees use checklists to ensure a thorough cleaning, and a manager double checks the machine afterwards.
The lack of resources to do more regular inspections, and more stringent enforcement, has long been a source of frustration for Linda and the department. The latest inspection - the first of soft serve machines since 2001 - was made possible by the work of a full-time, unpaid summer intern from the University of Northern Iowa. Of the 33 machines tested five years ago, nearly half failed to meet state standards.
Contact Jens Manuel Krogstad at (319) 291-1580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.