Food-grade lubricants have come of age in performance, but the more compelling reason to make the switch from conventional lubricants is to meet regulatory demands. 

The use of H1 food-grade lubricants keeps equipment running smoothly and also complies with USDA, FDA, ISO and NSF International regulations/specifications. ExxonMobil Lubricants & Specialties food-grade oils are used in this beverage filling machine. Source: ExxonMobil Lubricants & Specialties.

Rose Poultry made a switch to Petro-Canada food-grade lubricants for all equipment at its three Denmark locations. Source: Petro-Canada.

If you fail to lubricate processing equipment properly, it may come to a screeching halt before you expected, causing expensive downtime. Plus, if you’re not using food-grade lubricants, you may well have problems with local, USDA and/or FDA inspectors, who may close down your operation.

According to research from Kenji Yano, Yano Consulting, in 2007 roughly 60 percent of processors were not using food-grade lubricants. Beginning in 2000, Yano served five-and-a-half years as the business unit manager of NSF International and was instrumental in setting up the food-grade lubricants program previously under the auspices of the USDA.

Developing a detailed flowchart for replacing conventional grease with H1 grease in lubricated bearings helps assure consistency and the changing out of grease in each bearing. Source: Schaeffer Manufacturing Co.

Harsh environments

Rose Poultry has three locations in Denmark that produce 290,000 poultry products per day. Lubrication is a very important part of the processor’s preventive maintenance protocol. In the past, the lubrication process was very time-consuming and expensive because the lubricants being used couldn’t always withstand the harsh operating environments, water washout and shock-loading conditions.

For example, conveyors and trolley systems must be thoroughly cleaned to ensure food safety. During this process, the poultry processor uses high-pressure washing at 360psi with high-temperature water and chemicals. After one week, most of the food machinery grease and trolley fluid was washed off and rendered ineffective, causing downtime and production inefficiencies.

According to Technical Manager Lars Hvass, the spiral freezers also presented problems. Hvass was willing to try Petro-Canada’s Purity FG 00 grease on the freezers before further extending its use throughout the plant. “To be honest, we were skeptical at first because we had already tested several competitor products. We thought Petro-Canada’s lubricant would be just like all the others.”

Hvass’s crew was eager find a solution to lubricating the $1 million freezers as stoppages in production were extremely costly. “We tested Purity FG 00 grease in our spiral freezers,” says Hvass. “We were quite surprised. The grease proved to have very good resistance to water washout and breakdown, and it performs exceptionally well, even at -31°F.”

Following the successful test in the freezers, Rose Poultry began applying Petro-Canada lubricants in other areas in the plant, including the trolley system where Purity FG Trolley Fluid was used. “Purity FG Trolley Fluid has performed very well,” says Claus Foldager, head of repairs. “It offers excellent wear protection, and we feel that it’ll help to extend trolley life.”

Petro-Canada’s REFLO 68A was also tested in the processor’s ammonia compressor system. The ammonia refrigeration compressor fluid is designed to outperform solvent-refined paraffinic and naphthenic refrigerant oils. “We saw a very significant reduction in fluid use,” says Foldager. “Our estimation is that by using REFLO, in conjunction with our systematic preventive maintenance protocol, total fluid consumption has been cut in half.”

The move to H1 lubricants

A couple or more decades ago, the USDA created three categories for lubricants used in food and beverage processing plants:

• H1-a lubricant that may have incidental contact with a food product, and therefore, if found in a food or beverage product, its concentration must be fewer than 10 ppm (21CFR 178.3570 states 10 ppm maximum for mineral oil).

• H2-a lubricant used on equipment and machine parts where there is no possibility of contact with food.

• H3-a soluble, edible oil that can be used to provide temporary relief from rusting and can be present in food products.

In contrast, 3H is a release agent used on grills, loaf pans, cutters, boning benches, chopping boards or other hard surfaces in contact with meat and poultry food products to prevent food from adhering during processing.

About 10 years ago, USDA no longer supported testing and compliance, and gave the task to NSF International. NSF maintains these categories of lubricants, but also classifies many other proprietary substances and non-food compounds, including lubricants. NSF still has both 3H and H3 categories. Chemically, H3 mainly is vegetable oil; 3H mainly is white mineral oil.

Other standards have been set in place as well, but most countries actually follow the NSF H1 registration requirements for food-grade lubricants, says Colleen Flanagan, Petro-Canada specialty fluids global marketing manager. Governmental registration groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand handle registration similarly to how USDA once did. Other standardization activity includes DIN EN ISO 22000 in Germany and ISO 21469 and 22000 in Europe.

ISO 21469:2006 specifies hygiene requirements for the formulation, manufacture, use and handling of lubricants which, during manufacture and processing, can come into incidental contact (e.g., through heat transfer, load transmission, lubrication or the corrosion protection of machinery) with products and packaging used in the food, food processing, cosmetics, pharmaceutical, tobacco or animal-feeding stuffs industries.

The challenge with getting food processors on the H1 bandwagon has been primarily a perception of poor performance compared to H2 lubricants, says Jim Girard, Lubriplate vice president. Thirty years ago, many food processors shied away from using food-grade lubricants which were poor performers. However, in the last 10-20 years, significant advances in additive technology have improved H1 lubricant performance.

Additives to H1 lubricants must meet FDA requirements under 21 CFR, Section 178.3570 and other sections referenced therein or classified NSF HX-1 to make the resulting lubricant product H1. While the mix of additives is proprietary to any supplier, their use improves the overall lubricant in many ways. For example, rust inhibitors slow the formation of rust, and this was, according to Flanagan, one of the first obstacles conquered by suppliers. Other additives can be used to enhance the oxidation life of the product, and a relatively new generation of additives prevents the growth of bacteria and fungi in the lubricant.

It’s important to remember the purpose of the antimicrobial additives is not to decrease levels of bacteria in food; it is to prevent the growth of microbes in the lubricant that may stem from contaminated food. In 2009, JAX Inc. published a special bulletin to its customers and the public about the use of its Micronox antimicrobial.

According to JAX Technical Director Troy F. Paquette, “Micronox exhibits broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity to protect the lubricant against bacteria, yeasts and molds. While Micronox provides protection to the lubricant from contamination or degradation by foodborne or disease-causing bacteria, it does not protect users or others against these bacteria.”

While some additives certainly improve performance, others may hinder it. If processors are looking for high-performance H1 lubricants, some antibacterial or antifungal agents can potentially have adverse effects on the performance of the lubricant, says Kevin Harrington, global Mobil technical advisor, ExxonMobil Lubricants & Specialties. For example, they may have an effect on frictional characteristics of a gear oil or reduce the thermal and oxidative stability of hydraulic oil. He recommends checking the specifications of the lubricants containing these additives very carefully before making a decision.

Getting with the program

While some applications in a food or beverage plant may seem far enough removed from food, equipment and its lubrication may touch food in unexpected ways. Flanagan sees several Petro-Canada users switching air compressor and vacuum systems over to H1 lubrication to avoid any possibility of food contamination from a non-food-grade lubricant present in air lines or vacuum lines.

Hydraulic lines represent another application ready for a conversion to H1 fluid. “I did a usage and attitude study in the US about 18 months ago, and one of the processors talked about how painful it was to have been caught using an H2 lubricant in the hydraulic line above a meat processing line,” says Flanagan. “Not only was its food recalled, but also it had to shut down, purge the lines and show evidence of all of the remediation before it was allowed to go back into operation,” she adds.

“In the average food plant, the terms under the line and over the line are a generally reasonable, commonsense approach to determining when to use food-grade products,” says Glenn Krasley, Ultrachem sales & marketing director. “Simply put, if it’s over the line (any area that is located over or near enough to a conveyor or other system that processes food), you should certainly be using a food-grade lubricant. It’s usually the under-the-line instances that cause problems, because the worst-case scenario is often overlooked.” What if one of the hydraulic lines ruptures, and the high pressure of the system produces a 5-ft. spray? Not very likely, but it’s certainly a possibility. Possible scenarios like this cause many plants to use food-grade lubes throughout the entire facility, adds Krasley. 

According to Girard, the use of food-grade lubricants in refrigeration equipment is growing. “We have H1 refrigeration compressor oil. In the past, this application usually used standard petroleum products.”

There is one simple and important reason to use H1 lubricants throughout the plant, says Girard. If a processor were to use 100 percent H1 lubricants everywhere in the plant, an HACCP plan wouldn’t be required for the lubrication program and lubricants.

Another simple reason to switch everything over to H1 in a plant is to avoid cross-contamination, says Harrington. “Given the ongoing requirements for good manufacturing practices, food processors are moving toward H1 lubricants plant wide. This eliminates the potential for misapplication of an H2 lubricant where H1 is needed.” Harrington points out that when processors make a complete switch of all equipment to H1, contamination with H2 lubricants is one concern they don’t to worry about-whether for regulatory reasons or public/media scrutiny.

Once a processor has made the decision to switch to H1 lubricants, some prep stages are necessary. For instance, taking a step at a time, concentrating on one area, application or equipment like Rose Poultry did is a good approach. Then, according to Girard, it’s typically a three-step process to make the change. Most lubricant companies have already put together the proper procedures and the right chemistry to accomplish the changeover. Typically the procedure involves draining the old lubricant, flushing (adding a charge of H1-grade flushing fluid, running the equipment and draining the flushing fluid) and adding a fresh amount of food-grade lubricant.

It’s also a good idea to identify and mark all lubrication points in equipment where direct and/or indirect contact occurs between the lubricant and food or where a food-grade lubricant is to be used in place of a non-food-grade lubricant, says Larry Ludwig, Schaeffer Manufacturing Company chief chemist and technical director. This can be done with tags, labels, etc. Ludwig also recommends a detailed flowchart for each type of equipment, e.g., hydraulic systems, compressors, grease-lubricated bearings, heat transfer systems and gearboxes. Following a flowchart helps to get consistent results, says Ludwig.

Too much, too little, just right

Some equipment is easier to gauge than others when determining its lubricant needs. OEM machine manufacturers certainly specify the proper amount of liquid lubricants, but applying the proper amounts of grease can be trickier. When visible/audible problem signs occur, it may indicate over-zealous or under-zealous applications of grease.

For example, Ike Trexler, food-grade lubricants marketing manager at Summit Industrial Products, recalls a steam peeler operation where the equipment had manifolds covered with what appeared to be “pigeon droppings.” Each manifold had 12 to 20 Zerk grease fittings leading to shaft bearings. Maintenance people were observed to be coming along in successive visits applying six pumps of grease into each fitting. While the large amount of grease applied to the fittings connected to 6-in. diameter bearings presented no unsightly mess, the same amount of grease was being applied to 2-in. bearings, which were swimming in grease, and therefore, threw the grease out onto the manifolds, creating a horrible housekeeping problem. Imagine the problem if the grease were H2 and not H1.

Trexler’s visit to a major brewery uncovered another unexpected problem-where too little grease was being applied. A large auger that carried grain from the storage side of the plant to the brewhouse needed its bearings replaced every three to six months. A large manifold covered the bearings on the 12-in. shaft. Since the end of this auger was out of any convenient reach, capillary tubes carried grease from a bar of 30 grease fittings over a distance of 200 to 300 ft. to the actual bearing. When asked how much grease was applied and how often, the maintenance manager told Trexler he shot in “three pumps” to each fitting every week. When Trexler made some measurements and calculations, the math showed that with grease applications at this frequency and number, it would take two years for the grease to reach the bearings. Unfortunately, the grease only has a shelf life of a year and a half.

Obviously these are not intentional mishaps, says Trexler. The problem is the operations quickly become so massive in size, gearboxes are running in a ceiling or back in a corner, and no one remembers the gearboxes are there until they lock up or break.

Costly mistakes

The following anecdote demonstrates the bad information maintenance people often receive. Krasley was touring a bakery facility with its purchasing manager who stated his entire plant operated on food-grade lubricants. While walking the facility, Krasley noticed an open pail of non-food-grade industrial gear oil. The purchasing manager discovered one of his mechanics had recently completed a repair on a gear drive that had halted production on one of the lines. While the mechanic was picking up a coupling at a local industrial supply house to make the repair, he had also purchased a pail of gear oil. The supply house told him it was food grade, but it wasn’t.

The following companies supply food-grade lubricants.

Aerospace Lubrication

Bel-Ray Company, Inc.



Exxon Mobil Lubricants & Specialties

Fuch Lubritech

Haynes Mfgr. Company

Jax, Inc.

Kluber Lubrication

Krylon Products Group

Lubrication Engineers, Inc.


Petro-Canada, Inc.

Schaeffer Manufacturing Co

Summit Industrial Products

Total Lubricants

Ultrachem, Inc.