The Shocking Dangers of Soft-Serve Ice Cream

Nothing is better than cooling ice cream treat on a hot summer’s day. Whether you absolutely love a Wendy’s Frosty or can’t get enough of Chick Fil A’s milkshakes, there’s a frozen dessert for everyone out there. But, I just learned that my favorite summertime snack is actually very prone to causing food poisoning. That’s right, soft-serve ice cream is highly-susceptible to listeria or staphylococcus if not handled properly. Here’s why you might want to rethink ordering that soft-serve cone. 

Why Is Soft Serve So Susceptible to Food Poisoning? 

1. Soft Serve Machines Require Meticulous Cleaning

From listeria to staphylococcus, and other types of deadly bacteria, different pathogens can easily find their way into your soft serve when the machines aren’t properly cleaned. For example, in 2017 a McDonald’s employee tweeted photos of a moldy ice cream tray that was inside the machine. 

Foodborne illness attorney Bill Marler told us he never orders soft-serve ice cream because there have been a number of cases linked to listeria getting into the inner workings of the ice cream machines and making people sick. Which is why doctors tell pregnant women to not eat soft serve ice cream. On an online website for expecting parents advises pregnant women to avoid soft-serve ice cream and thick shakes because of listeria-which can grow if the soft-serve machine isn’t receiving routine cleanings

According to staff food writer and former food manager of a theme park, PJ O’neal, cleaning soft serve machines was one of the most taxing and important tasks every day in the park. “We were aware of the risks of improperly cleaned soft serve machines. They have many small parts, and if every part is not properly cleaned, they can harbor bacteria. Our routine practice was to thoroughly dismantle the machine and clean after every operating day. We never went more than 12 hours without a thoroughly cleaned and sanitized machine,” says Paul.

But if you aren’t sure the establishment you’re dining at has this regular and thorough cleaning process, it might be best for you to skip that twist cone. 

2. Soft Serve Mixtures Have a Narrow Safe Temperature Zone

In addition to occurring due to lack of cleaning, listeria or staphylococcus bacteria can be inside the ice cream mixture itself if not properly handled. For safety, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture recommends that restaurants store the mix at 40°F or less at all times. Due to the narrow temperature range that the mixture has to maintain, it is very susceptible to be within dangerous temperature zones. According to O’neal, “If fast food workers, [who] are mainly teenagers with very minimal food safety training, are mishandling the mixture, harmful bacteria can grow. It’s a combination of bad food safety practices that is the culprit, not the mixture itself.” 

How to Enjoy Soft Serve Ice Cream without Food Poisoning  

Before you forgo soft serve ice cream for the rest of your life, consider making soft serve at home, which gives you full control of the ingredients and equipment so you won’t have to worry about a nasty strain of bacteria getting into your dessert. 

Or take the advice of food writer Sara Haas, RDN and go for the soft serve as long as you are getting it from “a reputable seller that you know has high standards.”