What is ‘dry ice’, at the centre of the Gurugram restaurant incident?

The solid form of carbon dioxide commonly used as a cooling agent in ice cream & frozen desserts must never be touched with ‘bare hands’, let alone ingested, warn FSSAI, FDA & CDC

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 05 March 2024
Dry ice. Photo: iStock

‘Dry ice’, which was mistakenly offered to a party of diners at a Gurugram restaurant on March 2, 2024 and subsequently caused them to vomit blood, is a lethal substance, according to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It must never be touched, even with ‘bare hands’, let alone ingested. If touched or ingested, it ‘can cause severe damage to skin and internal organs’, according to these agencies.

In a note dated October 11, 2019, the FSSAI notes:

“Dry Ice”, the solid form of carbon dioxide, is commonly used as a cooling agent for food products like ice cream, frozen desserts etc. It is frequently used for food items that are needed to be cold or frozen, without the use of mechanical cooling. However, if not handled properly it may endanger human health, as it sublimes into large quantities of carbon dioxide gas which could pose a danger of breathlessness (hypercapnia). For this reason, it should be used/exposed to open air in a well-ventilated environment.

The agency further adds that dry ice should never be kept or stored or transported in a closed environment which may lead to breathlessness due to carbon dioxide gas emission. “Precaution shall always be taken to ensure that the area in use is properly ventilated to avoid any health risk.”

FSSAI also urges Commissioners of Food Safety of all States/UTs “to initiate a systematic campaign for generating awareness amongst all food business operators and citizens on the safe and proper handling of dry ice as cooling agent for food products”.

The US FDA too warns of the dangers of dry ice.

In 2018, it issued a Food Code interpretation on whether the FDA Food Code prohibits the use of liquid nitrogen and dry ice in the preparation or service of food in retail and food service establishments.

“The model Food Code is neither federal law nor federal regulation and is not preemptive. It represents FDA’s best advice for a uniform system of regulation to ensure that food at retail is safe and properly protected and presented. The model Food Code provisions are designed to be consistent with federal food laws and regulations and are written for ease of legal adoption at all levels of government,” the FDA notes on its website.

The FDA states that “dry ice has been used in the preservation of frozen foods in situations where mechanical means are unavailable”.

It warns that dry ice “must not be used in ways that make food unsafe for consumers or that cause other safety hazards”.

The FDA states:

Both liquid nitrogen and dry ice can cause severe damage to skin and internal organs if mishandled or accidently ingested due to the extremely low temperatures they can maintain. As such, liquid nitrogen and dry ice should not be directly consumed or allowed to directly contact exposed skin. While retail food-related incidents of accidental ingestion or direct contact with liquid nitrogen and dry ice in the United States have been low, injuries have been severe.

According to FDA, retail food and food service establishments can minimise the risks associated with accidental ingestion or skin contact with liquid nitrogen and dry ice in beverages with a number of measures.

Such establishments can “incorporate procedures and training for the safe receipt, storage, and handling of these substances when used in the preparation of foods and beverages into their procedures and training plans”.

Employees should be directed not to touch or consume dry ice, avoid adding it to foods and beverages immediately prior to service and ensuring complete evaporation or sublimation of the materials prior to service and/or consumption. Employees should be constantly warned with notices about the adverse effects of the substance.

“Never handle dry ice with bare hands. Always wear gloves designed for very cold temperatures and safety goggles. Always work in a well-ventilated room. Do not eat dry ice,” warns CDC in a note dated 01/07/2021.

The diners were captured on video, which subsequently went viral on social media, immediately after eating the mouth freshner offered to them by a waiter at Laforessta cafe in Sector 90 of Gurugram.

Ankit Kumar, who was also a member of the group, did not have the freshner. He was able to call the police and also take the others to a hospital where he was told that the freshner was in fact, dry ice.

A First Information Report has been registered against the waiter, according to media reports. The affected person are recuperating in hospital.

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