Ice. While it’s found nearly everywhere from Mars to the coils of a restaurant’s refrigerator–that is, when it’s not working properly–ice really doesn’t come into its own until now, the height of the summer season between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  Picnics, camping trips, and parties during the warm months help move 80 percent of the ice sold in the United States, each year.

ice-cooler.jpgStill, despite the fact that ice probably appears somewhere on your grocery list for the upcoming weekend, chances are pretty good you don’t give the stuff much thought and that has some people worried.

“Ice is ice is ice,” said Jane McEwan, executive director of International Packaged Ice Association, or that seems to be the public’s general perception, at any rate. McEwan, however, has particularly strong feelings about ice and she wishes consumers shared her concerns. Ice, she said, repeating the organization’s mantra, “is food”.

“It’s a food product that just has not garnered a lot of interest,” McEwan observed with some concern.  “You hear about the spinach and the peanut butter,” she said, but ice, well, it’s just frozen water, right?

True, it is just frozen water–if it’s made correctly–but it’s highly unlikely your attitudes about water itself are as cavalier. When it comes to water, admit it, you feel better about it if you know it’s been treated properly and is regularly tested. You’re unlikely to drink water you suspect is contaminated. You’re certainly not going to drink it if it smells funny or is filled with floaty things. You may even buy bottled water if you’re not particularly thrilled with the water from your tap.

So, where’s the concern about ice?

Founded in 1917, International Packaged Ice Association attempts to worry for you but they do wish you would read the labels on the ice you buy at the store. Comprised of companies who make, sell, or transport ice, members of the IPIA are expected to meet certain standards before they’re allowed to post the organization’s logo on their packages. They must renew their membership on a yearly basis and, finally, they must adhere to various guidelines concerning everything from employee hygiene and plant sanitation to record keeping and recall guidelines, standards verified by the National Sanitation Foundation. They also work at consumer education.

Given the public’s penchant for dumping ice into a cooler along with all their picnic foods–both raw and cooked–and then calling it a day, it’s a wonder more people don’t become sick but McEwan has several safety tips for would-be ice consumers:
• Look at the label. According to the FDA, the packaging on a bag of ice should tell you “the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor of the ice.  The labels must also list the net quantity of contents of the product.”

• Make sure the ice was closed properly. Drawstring bags compromise both the safety and quality of the ice, said McEwan. Look for bags that are sealed shut.

• Look for dirt. Yep, dirt. It can get in there, particularly if the bag is sealed with a drawstring or the ice is manufactured in a small Mom-and-Pop operation with little oversight.

In fact, the IPIA expresses quite a few concerns about ice manufactured by non-IPIA businesses: Fifty to 60 percent “of all packaged ice sold in the U.S. and Canada is produced on-premises at supermarkets, gas stations, liquor stores, campgrounds and other retail and wholesale outlets,” according to its Website. “These packaged ice producers (non IPIA plants) which are in thousands of locations nationwide producing millions of bags of ice annually neither meet any standards nor are they adequately inspected.”

Surprisingly, even though the FDA maintains strict standards for bottled water, it doesn’t apply the same regulations to ice. If ice is food, as the IPIA says, it follows that treating ice just as you would ground beef is probably not a bad idea, either:

• Store your ice in a clean container. Scrub out your ice chest with hot soapy water and let it air dry before you use it.

• Keep your ice cold. As silly as it sounds, the FDA recommends keeping foods chilled at 40 degrees or less to prevent the growth of pathogens. Follow the same advice for your ice.

• Avoid cross-contamination. Don’t use ice that has been exposed to the water that is pooling in your ice chest, and don’t use ice in your drinks if it has been poured loose into the ice chest to keep other foods chilled.

• Just as you would in your refrigerator, keep raw foods separate from cooked foods and, better yet, keep raw meat in a separate container, all together.