Food production consists of a vast array of equipment—pumps, mixers, oven chain drives, tanks, pipes, conveyor systems, compressors, automatic doors and many other units and systems. All of it needs to be lubricated properly to keep working. Plant managers know different machines require different lubricant solutions and that stocking, tracking and deploying lubricants effectively are critical to plant performance.
On one side, it’s about mechanics. Parts must move freely and be protected from friction, wear, corrosion, rust, deposits and all the other effects caused by an industrial process. Lubricants must ensure good pumpability, temperature stability (both high and low), oxidation resistance and washdown performance, as well as long replacement cycles and other factors.
On the other side, it’s about food safety. Lubrication programs in food manufacturing have to go the extra distance to ensure the safety and well-being of consumers, in addition to complying with government guidelines. Recently, a number of highly visible recalls and, in some cases, tragic food safety failures, such as melamine poisoning of milk in China and Listeria in packaged meat in Canada, have spurred increased interest in raising the food safety bar, including the choice and deployment of lubricants.
In the 1960s, USDA established three classes of lubricants used in food production applications: H1 (classified as food-grade and approved for incidental contact with food), H2 and H3. In 1998, certification responsibility transferred to the National Sanitation Foundation (now NSF International).
The limit for incidental contact for H1 lubricants remains 10 parts per million. These lubes have highly refined synthetic, mineral and vegetable bases. They can contain only approved base stocks, additives and thickeners (if grease), based on FDA Guideline Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) 21 178.3750.
H2 lubes are classified as having no possibility of contacting food. For this reason, they are not limited to a list of approved components. They still must be free of heavy metals, carcinogens, mutagens (chemicals that affect DNA), teratogens (chemicals that cause birth defects) and mineral acids.
H3 lubricants are essentially edible oils that are applied to hooks, trolleys and similar equipment to prevent rust and corrosion.
H1 lubricants are often referred to as “above the line” lubricants—used on equipment or mechanical components where there is the possibility they may drip onto the food production line below and cause incidental contact. H2 and H3 lubes, on the other hand, are often referred to as “below the line,” where there is little or no chance of the lubricant being sprayed or splashed onto the food line above.
Surprises, however, can and do occur. Once in a while, an interruption or event may happen, causing H2 or H3 lubricants to come into contact with food. This is why many processors use H1 lubricants throughout their facilities.
Of the three types, H1 lubes are the most expensive because they are the most refined, but the added cost is miniscule in the event of a conventional spill or splash that could potentially shut down a production line or even result in a product recall.
In 1998, almost 500,000 pounds of smoked ham were recalled because of gear oil contact. In 2002, a US-based soft drink producer recalled over 3,000 cases of product that contained gear lubricant. Meanwhile, a Danish milk powder manufacturer recalled 1,100 tons of product that was contaminated by lubricant leaking through a worn axle in a gearbox. And the list goes on.
Switching to 100 percent H1 throughout a plant can eliminate such risk. But until recently, switching hasn’t been so easy. “When food-grade lubes were first introduced in the 1960s, they lacked a number of performance elements that made them unsuitable for certain mechanical demands,” says Jim Girard, vice president and chief marketing officer at Lubriplate in Newark, NJ. “Recent advancements, however, have made H1 products equal to or better than their non-food-grade counterparts. In fact, our finest-performing mineral-based hydraulic fluids at Lubriplate are also food-grade certified.”
Unlike conventional lubricants, H1 products are not potential chemical hazards and thus don’t require a HACCP program. Consequently they provide a much wider margin of food safety and worry-free production. For these and other reasons, many argue they’re not only safer, but more economical in the long run.
Synthetics gaining ground
Today’s incidental food-contact H1 lubricants are made with high-performance “white” mineral oils, either USP (which is the purest) or technical white vegetable oils and synthetic base oils such as polyalphaolefins (PAOs), polyalkylene glycols (PAGs) and esters. These highly refined base oils, coupled with new H1-additive packages, can deliver premium performance.