Photo: Shutterstock / Elena Veselova
You weren’t feeling so great after last Sunday’s barbecue? When you think about the usual food poisoning causes at cookouts, there’s a surprising one you might be missing. It’s ice cream. When that cold and creamy dessert melts, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, including dangerous Listeria. (That’s a serious problem for anyone with a compromised immune system or pregnant women.)
Here’s what you need to know to stay safe!
How Ice Cream Causes Food Poisoning
Ice cream can actually go bad, and it happens in one of two ways:
- When it’s manufactured: If any of the ingredients are tainted with food poisoning-causing bacteria
- When it melts: If you scoop up the ice cream after it’s melted, and particularly after it’s melted and refrozen, you risk contamination
Where to Find Bacteria in Ice Cream
Have a quick look at any ice cream recipe, and you’ll see that it’s a simple mixture of milk or cream, sugar and flavoring. Some ice cream (or frozen custard) contains eggs as well. The ingredients can harbor microorganisms (like mold or bacteria) that might get you sick to your stomach.
It’s unusual for milk or cream to harbor illness-causing microorganisms because generally, the milk and cream used in making ice cream is pasteurized. Bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria are all destroyed through pasteurization.
When ice cream calls for eggs, they’re inevitably raw, and raw eggs can harbor Salmonella. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), notes that ice cream containing eggs—particularly the homemade kind—is responsible for hundreds of Salmonella outbreaks each year. The reason homemade ice cream is more often the culprit is that ice cream manufacturers tend to use pasteurized egg products, which help them avoid introducing Salmonella. The FDA actually recommends using pasteurized eggs—which are increasingly easier to find in the grocery store—in your home-churned ice cream.
Sugar rarely harbors bacteria, but it can harbor mold. Other flavorings and additives (such as gelatin) can harbor bacteria if not handled properly, which may explain this recent ice cream bar recall.
When Contamination Happens at Home
When it’s allowed to melt, ice cream can quickly become an incubator for bacteria. That’s why the FDA’s ice cream guidelines require distributors to keep frozen desserts at under 41° F. Your ice cream is most likely to melt at home—or more likely in your backyard! That melty ice cream is where any bacteria that’s introduced by you, your guests’ fingers, your serving utensils, etc. will begin growing. Since the sugars in ice cream feed bacteria, it’s a serious set-up for food poisoning.
Even after you refreeze your melted ice cream, it won’t be safe from certain bacteria that’s been allowed to grow. For example, Listeria can not only survive, but also thrive and reproduce right in your freezer!
How to Avoid Food Poisoning
You can reduce your family’s risk of food poisoning by following these safe-serving guidelines:
- Scoop your ice cream with a clean serving utensil, and don’t let anyone lick it.
- No double-dipping in the ice cream container with your personal utensils.
- Keep your ice cream frozen. If it melts, toss it.
- Avoid ice cream made with unpasteurized eggs and/or raw milk.
- When making your own ice cream, use pasteurized eggs and milk, and avoid cross-contamination.