HOUSTON – It is one of the ugliest, most disgusting, stomach-turning, "gag me with a spoon" things you will ever see in a restaurant.
Houstonians have been hearing about it for decades, but very few of us have ever actually seen what it looks like.
We’re talking about slime in the ice machine.
“Slime in the ice machine is black, sometimes pink, greasy and gross,” says Andy Spellins, of QBR Refrigeration, a company that specializes in professionally cleaning ice machines.
Spellins knows slime as nobody else does, because he has made a living cleaning it out of ice machines at restaurants, bars, clubs and workplaces.
He gave Channel 2 Investigates dozens and dozens of pictures of ice machines that he and his employees have had to scrub clean.
Andy said a clean ice machine is a must for any establishment serving food to the public.
“Because ice that the ice machine makes is the most important food product in every restaurant. It’s in every drink almost, on every table, everywhere you go to eat,” Spellins said.
Think about that for a moment.
Every single drink made with ice can be contaminated by bad ice.
We’re talking every glass of ice tea, soda, mixed drinks and ice water.
We asked Spellins where he most often finds slime in the ice machine.
“Basically, you’re going to find slime in the ice cavity. It’s right where the ice starts to drop out of the chute and into the ice bin,” he said.
Slime is basically a bacteria carrying mold that grows on surfaces where there is ample humidity, according to Spellins. It can come in a multitude of colors, including black, brown, pink and orange.
It can also become so bad that it grows slimy, slippery fingers and begins to dangle above the ice in the machine.
That slime can then fall into the ice below.
“Yes, the slime, as it grows, it can actually grow like a worm and it grows legs and begins to hang,” Spellins said.
Cleaning an ice machine is no small task.
First you have to dump out all of the ice inside the machine.
Then you need to scrub the pipes, scrub the tubes, and scrub the plastic surfaces where slime forms and, lastly, you must sanitize the area with a slime killer, such as Nickle Safe Ice Machine Cleaner.
Below is a slideshow we have created of dozens of pictures of different kinds of slime in the ice machine.
The pictures are real and were not doctored or enhanced in any way.
Ray Salti, the owner of Bollo Woodfired Pizza, has 27 years' experience in the restaurant business and he takes slime very seriously.
At his restaurant, he said, they automatically clean the ice machine at least once every week. Every four weeks, they give the machine an intense cleaning and scrubbing.
In addition to that, he said, once a year they have the machine undergo an even more intense cleaning, in which it is professionally scrubbed and sanitized by the folks at QBR Refrigeration, where Spellins works.
“You have to do it,” Salti said. “You can’t take chances with slime in the ice machine. If you have a dirty ice machine, you are going to make a lot of people sick. They can vomit. It could cause diarrhea, foodborne illness, really bad stuff."
Salti has made keeping his ice machine clean a major priority, because he knows what slime can do.
We created a special instructional video to teach you how to check for slime in the ice machine where you work.
“Slime is a critical violation,” said Christopher Sparks, chief sanitarian with the Houston Health Department.
Sparks said his team of restaurant inspectors also takes slime in the ice machine very seriously.
He said it is the type of restaurant violation that must be taken care of immediately or inspectors will quarantine that ice machine and order that it cannot be used.
Who is most at risk of getting sick from slime in the ice machine?
“Those who are most at risk are infants, the elderly, those who are infirm or sick or are health-compromised in some way,” Sparks said.
Every week, Houston restaurant inspectors do inspections at close to 1,600 different restaurants. Of those, Sparks said, they will find slime in the ice machine about 50 to 100 times a month.
KPRC2 reports on restaurant violations every Thursday in its Restaurant Report Card.