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Food Safety: The Legends of Food Grade Lubricants

Surprisingly, research indicates that 60 percent of U.S. food and beverage manufacturers have not yet made the switch from conventional oils and greases to food-grade lubricants in food and beverage processing.

Surprisingly, research indicates that 60 percent of U.S. food and beverage manufacturers have not yet made the switch from conventional oils and greases to food-grade lubricants in food and beverage processing.1The majority of U.S. food and beverage manufacturers still rely on non-food grade mineral based oils and greases to lubricate the machinery that touches our food supply, and the potential for contamination from non-food grade lubricants poses a threat to food and beverage safety in our country.

So why are so many U.S. manufacturers still using non-food grade lubricants? Legends and misconceptions about the performance of food-grade lubricants need to be dispelled and overcome - not only to improve production performance, but also to reduce contamination risks and guarantee safer food supplies.

Essentially, five legends deserve closer examination.

Legend #1: Contamination by machinery lubricants with food and beverage during manufacturing doesn't happen.

Fact #1: It happens more often than we think. Most contamination is detected before the product leaves the plant - but some aren't.

Reported product recalls include:

86,000 pounds of sliced turkey inadvertently exposed to a non-food grade lubricant during processing. Consumers complained of temporary intestinal discomfort from off-color, off-odor turkey.

•A packing company had to recall 490,877 pounds of smoked boneless hams after some were tainted with gear lubricant. Several customers reported a "bad taste" and "burning in the throat for up to three hours" after eating the ham.

•A grocery store chain issued a recall of one manufacturer's soft drinks on its shelves due to possible contamination by a lubricant that "may cause irritation if consumed."

•A baby food producer had to recall its infant formula and milk powder after reported contamination by industrial oil and metal in their products.

•Another manufacturer received complaints that a jar of baby food "smelled of tar." Investigators found the food was contaminated with toxic mineral oil lubricant during the manufacturing process.

Besides endangering consumer health, contaminated products cause far-reaching implications to the supplier and distributor. The cost of a recall -- in storage, shipping, notifying the public, and destroying bad food -- is just the start. Companies sustain damages in foregone profits, loss of reputation, consumer confidence and trust, reduced brand equity, and expensive outlays to regain market share.

Legend #2: I am pretty sure that the lubricants I use in my plant are all food grade.

Fact #2: Food grade lubricants are made from components approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for incidental contact with food. You can verify whether the lubricant is food grade or not by asking for a declaration of the formulation from the lubricant supplier, or by checking whether the product is H1 registered with a third party certifier such as NSF International.

Food-grade lubricants are readily available in the United States and a growing number of food and beverage manufacturers are using them. Any food or beverage processor not using food-grade lubricants is courting a huge risk. The FDA has set a "zero tolerance" for contamination by non-food grade lubricants and also governs the components that are allowed to make up a food grade lubricant. The US Department of Agrciulature (USDA) formerly approved lubricants as H1 ("for incidental food contact") and published the list in what was commonly known as the "White Book." The USDA ceased this activity in 1998. NSF International has since taken over the "White Book" and now registers lubricants as H1 food grade. You can verify whether the lubricants in your plant are food grade by checking the list of NSF H1 certified non-food compounds on

Legend #3: Food-grade lubricant performance is inferior to traditional lubricants. The lubricants don't meet the demands of my applications.

Fact # 3: Synthetic food grade lubricants are designed to meet a wide range of applications and generally outperform traditional food grade mineral oils.

Machinery used in food and beverage processing has many moving parts requiring lubricants to maintain reliable and efficient operation. Food and beverage contamination can occur from drips off chains, hydraulic hose failure, oil leaks from seals and gearboxes, or a release of compressed air containing an oily mist. Using traditional non-food grade industrial oils and greases is inappropriate in these settings.

Food-grade synthetic lubricants, such as Shell Cassida®, are odorless, tasteless and generally outperform established mineral oil-based lubricants. They are specially engineered for high performance remaining effective in the sub-zero cold of freezers and the high heat of ovens. Their increased oxidation and thermal stability, compared to a traditional mineral or white oil-based food grade lubricant, can extend equipment life and reduce downtime, which lowers maintenance costs.

As the FDA restricts the type and concentration of additives allowed to enhance food-grade lubricant performance, the critical performance factor lies in the lubricant's base oil itself. Synthetic base oil has superior technical characteristics over traditional white mineral oils.

Synthetic food-grade lubricants are designed for use in food and beverage manufacturing applications, improving lubrication properties and performance and offering excellent water resistance. Food-grade lubricants are harmless if accidentally consumed in quantities below the maximum FDA-prescribed level of 10 ppm (10 parts per million).

Legend #4: Food-grade lubricants cost more than mineral oil products.

Fact #4: Synthetic food-grade lubricants actually cost less in the long run, because they not only reduce overall maintenance costs, but also can reduce the risk of potential liabilities from using non-food grade lubricants.

Synthetics do cost more than traditional mineral oils, but the initial cost of the synthetic brings subsequent returns, against which a food grade mineral oil-based lubricant cannot compete. Further, damages that could arise from not using H1-approved food-grade lubricants are immeasurable.

According to the Japanese Institute of Plant Maintenance (JIPM), "up to 65% of mechanical equipment failures can be attributed to some form of lubrication deficiency."2 Lubrication failures lead directly to production losses, so a robust lubrication program plays an effective part in plant management.

Lubrication quality has a significant impact on equipment life. Field experience and case studies show that food-grade synthetics have a longer product life and need to be replaced less frequently in machinery. In many instances, results demonstrate up to four times more life with synthetic oils.

Legend #5: None of my equipment actually requires food-grade lubricants for food safety.

Fact #5: Food grade lubricants should be used wherever there is a chance of incidental contact with food or beverage products during manufacturing.

Lubricants used in manufacturing facilities can make their way into the food we eat. Oil and grease droplets can seep from bearings and conveyors, can seamers, bakery ovens and other critical points of operation.

Plant quality managers and maintenance managers should identify areas of potential lubricant contamination. Companies can assist by conducting a Lubrication Contamination Control Point (LCCP) survey, which forms part of the plant Food Safety Plan. For example, a Shell LCCP Survey is based on Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles and examines where the risks are in a plant, what they are and what can be done about reducing and managing them.

Food and beverage processing plants must prevent accidental lubricant contamination, which could potentially harm consumers and damage a company's brand and reputation. Synthetic food-grade lubricants can help minimize these risks, adding a buffer against contaminating our food supply.