I don’t like ambiguity, especially when it comes to the health of my children. So I was alarmed when I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer to the question: “Do modern-day crock pot glazes contain lead that can leach into my food?”
While lead in ceramics has been an issue for as long as we’ve known about lead poisoning, the crock pot debate heated up several years ago when KUTV newsman Bill Gephardt reported that many commonly-used kitchen products contain lead. One of the items highlighted in the article is a Rival brand crock pot.
The standards, and what’s wrong with them
I went to the FDA’s web site first to see what the actual regulations are about lead in crock pot glazes. Searching for “lead” on this site is not something I would recommend to anyone who worries about this type of thing–did you know they have regulations on what the acceptable amount of lead in candy can be? Like there is any acceptable amount of lead in candy. Holy sh!t.
After quite a bit of poking around, I did finally find what I believe to be the FDA guidelines that would mandate lead levels in both ceramic slow cooker/crock pot inserts, as well as other ceramic plates, cups, and pitchers. It appears that leach levels of 1 mcg/mL are acceptable. The problem with this, of course, is that it doesn’t appear to test things like heat, the acidity of the food, and length of contact with the surface, all of which could reasonably be expected to affect how much lead ends up in our food.
Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension attempts to allay consumer fears with the following information on lead in ceramics, but even it admits that there could be lead in crock pots, “Enamel-coated iron and steel is colorful, stain and scratch resistant and does not pick up food odors. It does not contain lead, except in some glazes for slow-cooking pots (crock-pots). However, the amount of lead leached into food from these pots does not exceed FDA standards.”
The problem with even a little lead leaching into your food (because, let’s be clear, the FDA standard allows for some lead to leach), according to Mayo Clinic, is “Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over a period of months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems.” This means that while one serving of food prepared or served using ceramics that leach lead might not hurt much, over time the cumulative affect could cause lead poisoning.
Talking to crock pot manufacturers, or going down the rabbit hole
One concerned mama who knew that I have been investigating this issue asked me if there is such a thing as a lead-free crock pot. At this point in my research, I didn’t have an answer for her. So I decided to contact the manufacturers of the top five brands (based on Amazon.com search results, which I realize is not a scientifically air-tight method) and see what they had to say. Full disclosure: I didn’t call all of these folks because I literally lost my voice halfway through the research due to a nasty cold. So some companies got only an email, and some got both an email and a call.
Hamilton Beach‘s web site has this to say about lead in its slowcookers:
Hamilton Beach specifications applicable to all slow cookers and their components (including the earthenware crocks) prohibits the product from containing any measurable amounts of lead. Furthermore, the factories that manufacture the earthenware crocks for Hamilton Beach are certified ceramic production facilities whose ceramic ware is deemed to satisfy FDA heavy metal requirements. Hamilton Beach takes all reasonable steps to ensure that the earthenware crocks accompanying our slow cookers provide safe and satisfactory service to our consumers.
One blogger has already contacted Hamilton Beach, who told her definitively that their crock pot glaze did not contain lead. The response I received to my inquiry, which mostly matched to what was on their web site, was slightly less reassuring:
Our product specifications require that all components in contact with food comply with US Food & Drug Administration “food-safe” requirements. The FDA requires that parts of food preparation products in contact with food do not leach lead above certain specified limits. The FDA does not require that a product in contact with food be “lead-free”. Our slow cookers have been tested by an independent laboratory and found to meet the FDA’s food-safe requirements; however, the unit is not “lead-free”.
I couldn’t find any information on West Bend’s web site, so I called them directly. Their customer service department said that their crocks contain no lead. To be sure, I asked a clarifying question, “Do you mean it has no lead, or that it meets FDA standards?” She replied that they do not use any lead at all in their glaze. I suggested that they put this information on their web site because consumers would want to know.
Crock Pot & Rival
Crock Pot & Rival are actually owned by the same company, Jarden Consumer Solutions. When I phoned them, the very pleasant customer service representative’s first response was, “There can’t be lead in them.” I let him know about the FDA standards, and then he wasn’t so sure. He actually gave me the name and email address of someone in management to contact, and I have contacted him. The response I got does not reassure me:
Jarden Consumer Solutions (JCS) continues to proactively test its products for lead and other toxic metals, with the results continuing to come back favorably. Lead is not an additive in the Crock Pot slow cooker ceramic glaze. JCS is diligent in its efforts to ensure that its products are compliant with applicable regulations regarding the presence of lead.
By the time I got to emailing Cuisinart, I knew more about what to ask. I focused my question to them on what safety measures and testing they undertake to prevent lead in their glazes from leaching into foods. I have not, at the time of writing, heard back from Cuisinart.
Contacting the manufacturers did little to allay my fears. Although the maker of my own crock pot (West Bend) assured me it was lead-free, the fact that other customer service reps I spoke or emailed with seemed unaware of the difference between “lead-free” and “FDA-compliant,” I knew I was going to have to take matters into my own hands.
When all else failed, I tested them myself!
Although various blogs and web sites mention this issue, I couldn’t find a broad review of the safety of crock pots, test results for lead, or satisfactory information from the manufacturers themselves. So I decided to contact some friends, get a selection of crock pots, and take them to WeeCycle Environmental Consulting down in Boulder, and have them surface tested with their XRF gun.
I quickly learned that a surface test using an XRF gun would not be a perfect indicator of crock pot safety. Jennifer from The Smart Mama told me exactly what is wrong with testing surface lead as a way of predicting how lead might move into food:
The FDA standards for lead in ceramics is a leachable lead standard, and the XRF measures total lead. So, I could find high levels of lead BUT the lead may not be leachable, which means that it wouldn’t migrate into food.
Basically, when the glazes are properly formulated and fired at a high temperature, the lead is sealed. However, if they are not properly prepared and fired, lead may leach into food stored in or on the ceramic ware.
Determined to get a true and accurate test of the risk of lead leaching into food, I found an inexpensive used Rival crock pot and planned to take a sample from it and have WeeCycle send it to the lab for a leach test (for obvious reasons, I didn’t want to take a chip out of my fairly new crock pot!). I ended up with quite a selection of crock pots, covering four of the five major brands (I couldn’t find anyone with a Cuisinart crock pot for some reason!) in several colors, since each color could have a slightly different chemical make-up. I think the wonderful ladies at WeeCycle were a bit surprised when I schlepped them all down to their office this morning to do the XRF test.
The results absolutely caught me off guard. Not one of the crock pots we tested had any lead in it at all. We tested each crock pot twice and threw a couple of red herrings (a dish made in China and some tiles from Italy that the WeeCycle staff keep in the office because they know they have lead in them) just to make sure that the XRF was working correctly.
Obviously, I did not test every crock pot on the market, nor can testing half a dozen crock pots on a single day account for things like a bad (read “lead-laden”) batch of glaze or a new color that uses slightly different chemicals. Some of the manufacturers themselves certainly seem to be leaving the door open for using lead in the glaze if they need to. But we tested the following crocks this morning and, again, they showed ZERO lead:
- West Bend – black
- Rival – black
- Rival – dark green
- Rival – beige
- Rival – white
- Hamilton Beach – white
- Crock pot – black
Being a natural skeptic, I have to admit this was not what I was expecting to discover. I didn’t even get to smash the stylin’ $5 beige Rival crock pot I bought just for that purpose because there’s no point in doing a leach test on a crock that contains no lead to begin with. My frustration that the FDA has a standard (or many, actually) that I do not believe is actually safe, and that manufacturers do not arm their telephone representatives with accurate, detailed information to answer consumer questions about safety aside, I feel a fair level of comfort with the results of this test, and with continuing to use my crock pot to cook things that I might otherwise have bought in BPA-laden cans. Woot.