ALBANY, GA (WALB) - It's something we use regularly, whether it's in our cup or our coolers, ice is a part of our daily lives. Have you ever thought about its cleanliness?
The Department of Agriculture considers ice a consumable product, and while they regulate large ice baggers, liquor stores that make, bag and sell ice largely go unchecked.
Prestige Ice in Thomasville makes and bags ice for Florida State University football games and the Georgia State Fair. They also sell it to convenience and liquor stores, but those customers are dwindling as stores make and bag their own, harming distributor's business.
What they're concerned about is quality. Those stores aren't required to follow the same Ag Department standards that distributors follow.
"We have monthly water samples, we have to have our name on the bag," says Prestige Ice Company Owner Ronnie Salter.
Prestige goes a step further. None of its ice is touched by human hands on the bagging line.
"Contact surfaces have to be either stainless steel or UHMW plastic."
While they have plenty of rules to follow, liquor stores that bag and sell their own product aren't required to meet any health regulations.
"The ice machine's usually in the back room, I think they're very unsanitary conditions. The scoops on the top of the machine, they grab the scoop and start bagging their ice, one bag at a time," says Salter.
We asked Health Department inspectors if that could pose a hazard to you, the answer is shocking. "You could have physical hazards such as objects, foreign objects falling into the ice or if the ice machine is not kept in good repair you could have pieces of the ice machine fall into the ice, nuts and bolts fall into the ice. If it's not clean and sanitized routinely then you could have things like slime mold or black mold accumulate in the ice," says Jim Pericaud, Director of Environmental Health.
Health hazards can also be introduced from the person bagging. "Also there's the possibility of communicable diseases such as Hepatitis A or the Norwalk virus," said Pericaud.
Our investigation found that in Albany, Lighthouse Liquors, Aces Liquors, and The Winery, all make, bag, and sell their own ice. None of these stores would let us photograph their ice machines.
While we have no evidence that suggests their ice is unsanitary, they may be breaking the law. The only store manager who would talk with us was at Lighthouse Liquors, and all three store managers dismissed our investigation, saying consumers aren't eating the ice they sell.
"One hundred percent of our ice sales are just for the coolers, guys going to the lake, or whatever so, they're really not being consumed through drinks," manager Jason Watts said.
Regional ice distributors say that's ridiculous. "It's not for one person to decide how it's going to be used, it is a food product and it's sold as a food product to be consumed and it should be held to the same standards as other producers," Salter said.
So why isn't someone looking into this? We called the Georgia Department of Agriculture which regulates food products in Georgia, which told us liquor stores fall under the Department of Revenue.
But guess what? The Department of Revenue says the Ag Department must oversee stores packaging ice in bags of five pounds or more. So we went back to the The Department of Agriculture, and this time, Commissioner Tommy Irvin says that if the liquor stores are unlicensed, they are breaking the law.
"They're not licensed by us, and so if they're bagging ice and selling it, well they would need to obtain a license from us," Irvin says.
It's a law no one is enforcing and larger ice distributors want that to change.
"I think it's important for the public to be aware that some people are held to higher standards than others," Salter said.
But Liquor store managers say regulations will come with a cost. "If you add more regulation it's just going to cost the consumer more money," Watts said.
Ice distributors are lobbying state lawmakers to impose more consistent standards, but until and unless that happens, you may just be using dirty ice.
As a result of our investigation, Ag Commissioner Tommy Irvin says his inspectors will require the three businesses to either get licenses or stop bagging ice.
We think this is an industry wide problem, and questioned why more inspections wouldn't be made. The Department told us it has too few inspectors to police everyone.