Bartenders Beware the Bright Orange Batch Bucket
February 13, 2017
I'm delighted to see increased awareness of proper food handling and safety in the bartending community, but we still have a way to go. I continue to learn as well.
One issue that came to light recently is the use of non-food-grade buckets for batching cocktails. Five-gallon buckets with lids are light, stackable, portable, and reusable, and have become an industry standard for use at big cocktail conferences and events.
However, some buckets are designated as safe for food handling, and others are not. Probably the most commonly misused bucket is the Home Depot "Homer" bucket in its signature bright orange color. These are not rated safe for handling food.
How Dangerous Are They Really?
How much damage can using this bucket cause? I can't say with any certainty, but alcohol is an excellent solvent that can leach chemicals out of plastic- and this plastic is dyed orange, while food-safe buckets always seem to be colorless.
Some bartenders have commented that it's the same type of plastic as buckets rated food-grade, so what gives? Avery Glasser of Bittermens Bitters makes a great point when he says, "Regarding HDPE#2, the resin is food safe, but the dye, the lubricants and the chemical cleaners they use on the line could be mutagenic, carcinogenic or cause renal issues. Some flush out with urine, some stick to your internal fat. That's why the resin isn't the indicator for food contact safety, it's the international food safe symbol."
He continues, "Think of it like a piece of oak. Inherently, it's safe to use as a cutting board, but the varnish or stain they use could be hazardous. "
An Easy Solution
On the plus side, when these buckets are used for cocktails they're not typically used for full-strength or high-proof spirits alone, and get watered down with other cocktail ingredients and kept cool with ice. This will slow down any chemical extraction. Also at events, the booze doesn't sit around too long in the buckets before use, leaching out chemicals over a long period of time.
Based on this, my guess is that you don't need to panic if you've had drinks made in orange buckets, or if you've made them in the past. (I've probably had hundreds of them.)
But it's a learning curve. Going forward, let's do our best to eliminate non-food-grade plastics at cocktail events.
The good news is that the same Home Depot that sells the orange buckets we're avoiding also sells five-gallon food-safe buckets! (Perhaps not in the store, but if you order online they'll deliver it to your local store.)
This cocktail cloud has a silver lining.
As a retired urologist I can tell you that the dyes, cleaners etc do NOT cause renal damage in humans unless you CONSUME more than a caseload of buckets, plastic and all....so since we don’t EAT the buckets....and the leaching is MINIMAL to microscopic for batching, there is more danger in crossing the street than in using those buckets for batching as stated. This study in MICE ( which aren't allowed in a bar anyway) shows the ratios (https://academic.oup.com/toxsci/article/61/1/92/1615305/DNA-Damage-Induced-by-Red-Food-Dyes-Orally) and dosages found to cause DNA damage etc. In humans the main factors relate to G6PD deficiency and other genetic diseases that alter metabolism. It should be noted that alcohol in and by itself is more responsible for carcinogenesis of the colon/renal tissue than a bucket.
The leaching of BPA occurs when non food grade plastics are heated either by microwave, super hot water such as restaurant dishwashers or used to store HOT foods, which doesn't occur in creating a batched cocktail. Furthermore, this review shows that we are exposed to much more BPA from soy and other foods, especially those in canned metal containers on the grocery store shelf (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/plastic-not-fantastic-with-bisphenol-a/).Food grade containers are required to prevent bacterial contamination from food, not alcohol, which you correctly stated is bacteriocidal. Let’s not spread “false news” or fear.
Posted by: Larrian Gillespie MD | February 14, 2017 at 10:59 AM
Thank you for your comment and I hope this post is clear in its point that using a non-food-grade buckets for batching is a bad idea compared with using food-grade buckets for batching. No matter how minimal the effects are of using non-food-grade plastic for food applications (and I don't think this was over-stated in the post), there is a reason that these are clearly labeled "Buckets are not food grade" in their description on the manufacturer's website. It is because they are not food grade, and thus should not be used for food.
Posted by: Camper English | February 14, 2017 at 11:51 AM
That said, perhaps I will tone down the title from "beware" to "avoid." I did it for the purposes of alliteration, not for fear-mongering click bait :)
Posted by: Camper English | February 14, 2017 at 12:15 PM
Camper...of course, food grade is the best...but the purpose of my response was not to say otherwise..but to explain that using the non food grade( which is okay for alcohol as it doesnt grow bacteria and doesn't leach chemicals unless stored for prolonged periods of time)was not going to cause "mutagenic, carcinogenic or cause renal issues." Alcohol in and of itself is a FAR greater cause of "mutagenic, carcinogenic or cause renal issues." However, "avoid" whenever possible is accurate and not fear-mongering click bait!:-)) BTW..the reason for clear containers is so you can see what's inside a closed, stored container on a shelf or in cold storage for routine inspections. Let's kick the bucket on this one.( I could not resist!)
Posted by: Larrian Gillespie MD | February 14, 2017 at 02:37 PM
Thanks for injecting a bit of science into the field. I'm a toxicologist who regularly works with food contact substances - including plastics. You and Dr. Gillespie both make good points. While batching cocktails in a non-food grade plastic bucket probably is not a significant risk (certainly not compared to the carcinogenic, developmental toxicity of the ethanol) it certainly is tacky and reflects poorly on the bartender. Avery Glasser has good points regarding the base polymer and the manufacturing process, handling and cleaning of the plastic. Food grade has to be tested according to federal regulations for extractables and leachables (21 CFR 175.300). Note that food grade doesn't mean it doesn't leach chemicals, just that it leaches acceptable concentrations. But it's not what I ordered in my cocktail. I choose to drink the ethanol, not the chemicals in/on the plastic.
(Quick note, BPA won't be in the HDPE buckets - BPA is used in polycarbonates, not in high density polyethylenes (HDPE). And it's a weak endocrine disruptor, but not mutagenic, carcinogenic, or a cause of renal issues. It's a chemical that lost the PR battle, not due to any real public health threat.)
Keep in mind that the migration can go both ways - the plastic can also adsorb substances, like aromatics, from the cocktail.
Good topic, good comments, glad to see the discussion.
Posted by: J. Henry, PhD | February 14, 2017 at 08:51 PM
Points well made. I think a factor missing here..is its a health code violation to use NON NSF grade containers in bars and restaurants and affects liability insurance coverage if a bar or restaurant is sued for an illness etc. Health inspectors could also pull a health permit if they found non NSF containers being used for food/alcohol storage or lower the rating of the bar or restaurant.
Posted by: Larrian Gillespie MD | February 15, 2017 at 08:19 AM
One point I feel that needs to be stressed, from a shipping perspective, most freight carriers require a shipper to declare food and food contact products as they can't ride on carriers carrying certain hazardous chemicals.
I've worked with injection molded plastics, and what Dr. Gillespie states is correct, but incomplete. In the manufacturing process, many substances come into contact with the plastic, ranging from lubricants and cleansers, all the way to finishing sealants potentially sprayed onto the plastic. These substances are more potentially hazardous than the plastic themselves.
The simple point is that a bucket that's not intentionally food safe can have a wide range of contact with substances that are potentially hazardous, may include additives that are potentially hazardous, and may be shipped and stored in a manner that renders them hazardous. Though we don't know the risk and the potential for harm, there is no reason not to just use food safe buckets, which are just as easily available at a comparable price.
Posted by: Avery Glasser | February 19, 2017 at 12:57 AM
If it's not food grade don't use it in situation where food or ice or cocktails come into contact with it. It's pretty simple really. Anything else is just lazy cheap and looks bad.
Posted by: Brian | December 14, 2019 at 11:18 AM