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Crazing and Bacteria: Is There a Hazard?

Section: Glazes, Subsection: Food Safety


A post to a discussion on the clayart group by Gavin Stairs regarding the food safety of crazed ware.

Article Text

This is a post to a discussion on Clayart May 1998 by Gavin Stairs stairs@stairs.on.ca

This discussion about the safety of crazed ware for food service is a bit of a puzzle. We have been down a long country lane on the problem of infectious disease over the last century or so. From the time of Jenner (who introduced antisepsis in medical practice) until today, we have passed from the early, heroic struggles of people like Pasteur and Koch, through the miracles of sulfa, penicillin and the antibiotics, to this point. Certainly, elementary hygiene, including washing food ware in hot, soapy water, must be considered to be one of the most consistent successes. Bacteria and other infectious agents seem to be able to adapt to antibiotics and other agents, but a good, hot wash is still more than most can handle, and I've not heard of any cases of adaptation. There are organisms that can survive in hot baths (hot tubs, public baths, hot springs, etc.), some of which are pathogenic, but these do not grow and prosper on dishes.

In the end, we rely on our immune systems to protect us from the everyday risks of infection. Many of the disease causing agents that we fear are endemic in our environment, meaning that we come into contact with them every day. A completely sterile environment is not good for this immunity, since it gets no reminders of what to fend off, and can essentially go to sleep. Our daily contact is a sort of inoculation against the diseases, which we therefore only contract if we come into contact with an infectious agent in large doses.

If this analysis is correct, we should not fear low doses of bacteria such as what might hide in a crack in a glaze. However, if we then place into such a pot a nice culture medium, like some food, and keep it there for a while, we may find that the small colony in a crack has become a large culture in the food. Then we are in trouble.

This indicates to me that we should be sensitive to a range of risk.

Greatest risk is in food storage containers, especially for wet foods and liquids. My feeling is that these should be entirely free of crazing and surface blemishes on the food contact side. This includes the lip. And this should be the case in both pots for sale, and for individual use.

Next are food preparation surfaces and pots. I think these should also be craze free, certainly on articles for sale, and for the food service industry. For personal use, I would not necessarily throw out a favorite pot that developed a glaze crack or two.

Finally, individual plates, cups and bowls. These are the least sensitive, provided they are consistently washed in hot, soapy water, and are not used for food storage. So one might easily accept a crazed glaze on these for one's personal use. But can we control their use by purchasers? I would still be on the side of an unblemished glaze surface on pots for sale as food ware.

What about vases, flower pots, etc.? We know that these are not intended for use as food service vessels, and we might suppose that others would as well. But we have all seen pots intended for one thing being used for another. Government authorities tend to err on the side of caution (some might say extreme caution), and assume that anything that can hold food, will. We might do the same, and assume that any pot without a hole in the bottom is a food pot.

All of that being said, I come back to the argument that we have been eating off crazed plates for a very long time, and we are still here. The risk is not enormous, or there would be no room for discussion. I'm sure some people have become ill from eating food from crazed pots, but I have no statistics or anecdotes to prove it: just a slight understanding of how bacteria work. I would guess that most cases of infection are sub-clinical, meaning that they clear up by themselves without health professional intervention, and maybe without the person knowing it at all. We do hear of cases of widespread food poisoning from time to time, most of which are traceable to poor food hygiene practice in preparation. I would not countenance using crazed glaze pots in a cafeteria, for instance. Nevertheless, as I recounted to the list a short while ago, in a restaurant I once ate soup from a cracked pot and survived to tell about it.

I suppose that the case is about parallel to that of pasteurization of milk. If you are drinking milk from a cow which is known to you and is well, and which was milked the same day (or equivalently, the cheese or yogurt was made the same day), the risk of drinking raw milk is slight. If you are drinking milk which has been collected from many large farms, mixed and processed together, and stored for a time, the risk is far greater, effectively by a factor of the number of cows involved, etc. Pasteurization is warranted. In the case of pottery safety, if we are dealing with a case of an individual dish for our own use, carefully washed
and used appropriately, the risk is slight. If we are dealing with a line of dishes for sale, possibly to the food service industry, then the risks are very much greater. Or at least our liability is potentially much greater.

This discussion began with an exchange between a concerned potter and a large producer of food ware for public sale about a line of crackle glaze dinnerware. I presume the large manufacturer has not yet been sued for damages resulting from a case of infection. The possibility that they will be, or that someone may get ill or die from the use (or misuse) of their ware is for anyone to judge, perhaps particularly their legal department or some regulatory authorities. Other contributors to the list have pointed out that a) stoneware is not 100% non-porous, and b) bacteria can indeed lodge in the cracks, and c) there are techniques to produce the aesthetic effect of a crackle without the crazes on the final glaze. If I were in the position of the large manufacturer, I would certainly opt for a craze-free surface.

Finally, however, I can't help but note that our ancestors ate, prepared and stored food in porous, unglazed, earthenware pots for millennia before we came around to discuss the matter. Safety issues have few blacks and whites, and much grey.

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