Industrial Utility Efficiency

Using H1 Food-Grade Lubricants in Food Processing Plants

Health and safety issues are a major concern in the food industry. Not only can contaminated food products endanger consumers, but they also can cause significant damage to a company’s reputation and bottom line. Contamination can come from many sources—industrial lubricants among them. With the abundance of lubricated machinery used in the food industry, lubricant dripping from a chain or escaping through a leak in a component can prove catastrophic. Even with the most prudent maintenance and operating procedures, along with a strict HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) plan, contamination may still occur.

Using H1 food-grade lubricants can help reduce the health and safety risks of a company’s food products.


The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits any food contamination by a non-food-grade lubricant. Under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, each owner, operator or agent in charge of a food facility is required to identify and implement preventive measures to substantially minimize and prevent food safety hazards. The legislation also broadens governmental authority to order product recalls and to protect public health. The costs of a recall can add up substantially:

  • Retrieval and destruction of the product
  • Notifying the public of the recall
  • Possible legal expenses and fines/settlements in the event of any lawsuits
  • Loss of market share due to negative publicity and declining consumer confidence/trust
  • Extra efforts needed to help rebuild the company’s reputation, brand image and market share


Notable Lubricant Contamination Recalls

Although some other types of contamination (such as bacteria and allergens) are more common, incidents of lubricant contamination in the food industry have made the headlines in recent years, including including those seen in Table 1(1)

Product Recalled

Reason For Recall

86,000 pounds of sliced and packaged turkey

Contamination by a non-food-grade lubricant, discovered following consumer complaints of off-color, off-odor, off-flavor product, and some reports of temporary intestinal discomfort.

490,877 pounds of smoked boneless ham

Exposure to gear lubricant, discovered after several consumers reported an unpleasant taste as well as a burning sensation in the throat lasting up to 3 hours after eating the product.

1,100 tons of powdered milk, manufactured over a 6-month period

Contamination by lubricating oil containing very fine particles of iron, discovered when a consumer reported a pale gray tint to the product. A leading distributor incurred losses of \$6.5 million due to product recalls and sued the manufacturer for losses not covered by insurance.

4,740 pounds of turkey sausage

Grease contamination

142,182 cases of macaroni-and-cheese meals

Contamination from an air compressor lubricant

4,000 cases of canned soft drinks

Contamination from a conveyor lubricant

28,928 2-liter bottles soft drinks

Gear-lubricant contamination

Bottled soft drinks (unspecified quantity)

Lubricant contamination with the potential to cause irritation upon drinking the beverage

Canned baby food (unspecified quantity)

Mineral-oil lubricant contamination that made the food smell like tar and prompted a mother to contact environmental health officials

55 tons of seasoning

Mineral-oil contamination, resulting in a recall that cost the manufacturer an estimated \$1.9 million

Wine grapes (unspecified quantity)

Contamination from a mineral hydraulic lubricant, which escaped through a ruptured hose onto the grapes during harvesting. The problem affected grapes harvested at two vineyards before it was discovered upon the breakdown of the harvesting equipment at the second vineyard. The second vineyard successfully sued the harvester and the first vineyard for a total of nearly \$300,000.

1Sources: United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Food Standards Australia New Zealand, The Straits Times, Youth Daily Shanghai, AFX News Ltd., Philippine Daily Enquirer, The Sentinel (Stoke on Trent, UK), High Court of New Zealand, Machinery Lubrication.


Implement an HACCP Plan and Lubrication Survey

To help prevent contamination issues at a facility, and correct any that might exist, a facility should implement an HACCP plan and lubrication survey. The HACCP program, originally developed by NASA to protect astronauts from food contamination issues, is a scientific approach for controlling and preventing food safety hazards in food processing, packaging and transportation. The program provides a system to:

  • Identify any food contamination risks and the control points at which they may potentially occur
  • Establish preventive measures for each control point
  • Monitor and evaluate the progress of the new measures implemented
  • Identify and enact subsequent corrective measures as necessary to achieve contamination risk prevention and control

A lubrication survey, which lubricant suppliers such as Isel can help conduct, provides a thorough analysis of lubricant contamination risks in a facility. Some of the key issues these surveys address:

  • Do the properties of each lubricant suit the application for which it is used?
  • Does the equipment design ensure lubrication maintenance without risk of incidental food contact?
  • Is lubricant dispensing equipment used for multiple lubricants, thereby increasing risk of lubricant cross-contamination?
  • Are the lubricant storage and handling procedures adequate to prevent contamination?

Answers to these and other survey questions will help determine the preventive and corrective measures needed, as part of the HACCP plan, to improve food safety.


Protect the Food and the Company

Using food-grade lubricants can help protect consumers and companies from the health, safety and financial risks of lubricant contamination. Thanks to recent technological advancements in the lubrication industry, products are available offering the benefits of food-grade formulation without sacrificing performance.

Lubricants used in the food industry are categorized across three types:

H1 Lubricants: These lubricants may have incidental contact with food. Formulations may only contain certain base stocks, additives and thickeners as specified by FDA regulations (21 CFR 178.3570) or as approved by NSF. In addition, in the event of incidental contact, contamination of food by an H1 lubricant must not exceed 10 parts per million (i.e., 0.001 percent).

H2 Lubricants: These fluids may only be used where there is no possibility of contact with food. Their formulations do not face the restrictions applicable to H1 lubricants. However, H2 lubricants cannot contain carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, mineral acids or intentionally heavy metals, such as antimony, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury or selenium.

H3 Lubricants: Also known as soluble or edible oils, H3 lubricants are typically used to clean and prevent rust on hooks, trolleys and similar equipment. After application, these lubricants must be washed or wiped clean from the equipment before it is put to use. H3 lubricants may only contain edible oils, certain mineral oils that meet FDA 21 CFR 172.878, and oils generally recognized as safe (GRAS) under FDA regulation.


Performance: Once An Issue, Not Anymore

Years ago, early food-grade lubricants often fell short on performance compared to non-food-grade alternatives. Many plants were forced to settle for inadequate lubrication for the sake of food safety, or accept the risks of using non-food-grade fluids to meet performance demands.

Today, advancements in lubrication technology have led to a new generation of food-grade synthetic lubricants satisfying food safety guidelines and able to withstand the challenging demands of modern food processing equipment. Thus, manufacturers can minimize the potentially costly risks of lubricant contamination of food products while also enhancing equipment reliability and plant productivity.

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