Lubricant contamination is a constant threat in the food processing industry because even a minor incident could force a company to undertake a reputation-damaging product recall.
Minor lubricant leaks in processing machinery are common, often unavoidable, and not always obvious. Normal wear and tear on seals can cause a gearbox or hydraulic system to release minute quantities of oil that can spoil a batch of food. Prudent engineering and maintenance can minimize, but not eliminate, these threats.
If a plant manager chooses to use a non-food grade lubricant, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's regulations do not allow the lubricant to have any contact with the food being processed. Should contact occur, the entire batch must be discarded. However, if a plant uses food grade lubricants -- which are nontoxic, odorless, colorless, and tasteless - the FDA limits contamination to 10 parts per million.
Until September 1998, the US Department of Agriculture maintained a list of approved food grade lubricants (the components of which FDA had approved) that could be used in a processing facility. To assist manufacturers, the non-profit NSF International (NSF) has assumed USDA's role of compiling the "White Book" list of registered food grade lubricants, employing the same criteria that the federal agency used.
If there is any risk that a lubricant may come into contact with food during processing and packing operations, then only those lubricants that have been registered for use in incidental contact (NSF H1) applications should be used.
A space-age technology increasingly dictates the use of lubricants around processed foods. In the past, to ensure against contamination companies used food safety inspectors, random spot-checks of equipment, lines, and tests of the finished product.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed a more proactive method, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, in the 1960s to protect astronauts against food-borne illnesses. HACCP uses science-based controls to identify the hazards associated with processing a food and identifies the production points where those risks can be virtually eliminated.
HAACP outlines preventive measures (such as minimum cooking temperatures) for each control point, requires procedures and instrumentation to monitor those control points, and prescribes corrective actions for when a critical limit is not met. Careful records are kept on document operations.
The National Academy of Sciences, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (an international food standard-setting organization), and the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods all have endorsed the HACCP method.
The FDA has required HACCP plans for meat, seafood and other high-risk foods and is moving to adopt the same standards on a wider basis. HACCP plans should necessitate the use of food grade lubricants in all food processing and packaging machinery in order to reduce the potential for contamination. Another reason for HACCP controls is that the number of food companies and the diversity of their products and processes continue to grow - both in terms of domestic production and imported foods - while the resources of the FDA and other regulatory agencies have remained static.
HACCP surveys may be the cornerstone of food safety management, but they are only effective if conducted as an ongoing exercise rather than a one-time activity.
Although most major food producing companies are using HACCP surveys, the same firms don't always pay enough attention to the importance of a lubrication survey.
All lubrication points should be considered critical control points, or areas of potential risk. Food processing generally involves machinery and accessories such as pumps, mixers, tanks, gearboxes, hydraulics, hoses, pipes, drive chains, and conveyor belts.
Lubrication critical control point surveys should examine a number of issues. The properties of the lubricant should match the use. The lubricants' storage must be secure and containers must not be leaking. Containers used to dispense lubricants should be used for only one lubricant type.
The surveys should review the type and frequency of maintenance, whether the equipment permits easy access for lubrication without incidental contact with food, and if the lubrication recirculating systems are functioning.
The lubrication maintenance of process equipment often conflicts with the stringent hygienic requirements imposed on the food production process. However, oil changes and topping off activities are necessary, and if performed correctly, can be kept to a minimum. The use of maintenance-free or low-maintenance equipment designs (such as sealed bearings) also can reduce the risk of contamination.
Mineral versus synthetic
Food manufacturers can choose from a wide array of mineral and synthetic oils and greases, many of which differ significantly in quality.
General industrial fluids and greases (non H1) historically have been used in food processing, but the potential for contact with consumable products makes them less than ideal.
Some mineral-oil-based products can satisfy the NSF H1 food grade requirement, but they frequently do not meet the extreme load and temperature performance requirements of modern food processing equipment. The "white oils" usually are less expensive than synthetic lubricants. Synthetic food grade lubricants offer distinct operational advantages, with better oxidation and thermal stability. They also can prolong the service life of lubricants, reduce downtime by increasing productivity, and better protect machinery from corrosion and wear. They are resistant to microorganisms and are specifically designed for high performance, whether for the extreme low temperatures of freezers or for the high temperatures of ovens. Their filters need to be changed less often, reducing the potential for spills and the disruption of production lines. Synthetics also respond better to performance additives, which is important because of the FDA's restrictions on the type and concentration of additives allowed in food grade oils.
The U.S. food industry has made great strides to instill public confidence in its products, especially in light of growing consumer concerns about the safety and health effects of food.
Product spoilage can involve significant financial losses for a manufacturer, but those costs can be small compared to what product recall can cost the reputation of a brand. Food processors not using food grade lubricants are taking unnecessary risks.