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Dirty Dining: Is there a dangerous substance in your soda cup?

Posted at 10:00 PM, Apr 27, 2017

LEE COUNTY, Fla. -- Are you being stalked by a dangerous organism?  It lives in the dark, thrives on moisture and sugar, and can pour out into your soft drink cup without your knowledge.

Investigator Alan Jennings discovered black and green slimy mold-like substances in local restaurant ice machines, and the nozzles dispensing your favorite beverage.  It’s a Fox 4 investigation into Dirty Dining.

State inspection reports led us to concerns about a dozen popular fast food restaurants in Southwest Florida, where Fox 4 uncovered surprise inspections conducted by state examiners who found what they called slimy mold-like substances.

Going over these reports, one really jumped out at us: Firehouse Subs on Santa Barbara Boulevard in Cape Coral.  Inspectors found “accumulation of black green mold found around the soda dispensing nozzles" during their last unannounced visit five months ago and forced Firehouse to immediately clean and sanitize.

Firehouse Subs’ corporate office responded to our story saying: "during a routine inspection by the local office of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation in October of 2016, the inspector noted a minor infraction in the equipment at the Firehouse Subs in Cape Coral, Fla., which was immediately corrected while the inspector was still on site. The firehouse subs subsequently
Passed the inspection."

Although Firehouse corporate called it a "minor infraction" the actual state inspection report obtained by Fox 4 shows the black green mold-like substance was an intermediate violation. State regulations require ice machines and drink nozzles to remain clean at all times.

Which raises the question of how many adults & children consumed soft drinks here prior to the inspection, and didn't know what they were drinking?

Fox 4 sought out an expert on mold; she cautions mold-like substances can be potentially dangerous for adults and children.  "People don't realize that mold is can be deadly, especially for people with lower immune systems," says Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist Dee Harris.

She sees clients in her Bonita Springs office and is one of only ten women nationwide with special certifications in treating mold disorders.

She says mold feeds on sugar. “I mean it’s a fungus.  It feeds on sugar.  It has to have food, it needs moisture."

So, according to Harris, the more sugar loaded drinks that pass through restaurant soda dispensers, the greater the chance for mold.

The lurking mold issue is serious, says Harris, suggesting restaurant operators need to daily clean the ice machines daily and the dispenser nozzles as a matter of public health.

Next, we went directly to Virgil Cicco, a former restaurant owner and now a professional restaurant consultant, to find out how a daily cleaning of self-serve dispensers could go unchecked.

"No one wants to drink mold. No, but and again those machines are made to take apart.  Most restaurants require their employees to take them apart after every shift, sanitize them, and put them back together.  So obviously they’re either not trained to do it or they're just not doing it," says Cicco.

He tells Fox 4 that buying bottled drinks is the safe way to go.

Firehouse Subs isn’t alone. We found other restaurants with growing mold-like substances in the very same places: Jason's Deli on Santa Barbara Boulevard in Cape Coral and another Jason's Deli on Commerce Way in Fort Myers.

State inspectors paid Jason’s Deli an unannounced visit.  The report indicates they found the self-service drink machine in the dining room soiled; a build-up of a mold-like substance slime in the dining room is what they called it.

That happened in early March at the Fort Myers Jason's Deli. Franchise owner, the Wilrock Group responded to our story, saying the issues were all minimal.  “We take food safety seriously and a high priority at our restaurants."

All the restaurants we investigated were forced to correct their violations on the spot.  Fox 4 also discovered state inspectors sometimes don’t revisit restaurants for months, sometimes years at a time, leaving restaurant owners to police themselves.

Our investigation shows that’s not always the case.

There were no reports of any diners actually getting sick from those black green mold-like substances.

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Alan Jennings will have Part 2 of his Dirty Dining report on Friday, probing exactly how clean are the kitchens and the cooks at your favorite restaurant.