Lubricants are the lifeblood of many types of equipment, but they probably don’t get the respect they deserve.

Think of your car. If you run out of oil, your engine heats up; at the very least, your car will blow a gasket. Even worse, you could fry your engine and have to rebuild or replace it.

So it is with lubes in a food or beverage plant. These magic liquids, greases and sprays help keep everything humming and products streaming out the door.

In recent years, there have been dramatic improvements in how lubricants perform. This includes their ability to withstand heat and moisture; how they handle freezing temperatures; and the way they seem to keep going and going before having to be replaced.

When simple is safe

Basically, two types of lubricants have been used in the food processing industry for some time now. The elite class is H1. Lubricants in this category are classified as being food grade and are allowed incidental contact with food as it’s being produced. They are based on refined synthetic and vegetable stocks, and they are entirely safe, non-toxic and edible. However, there’s an FDA limit of 10 ppm.

H1 lubricants are referred to as being “above the line,” meaning they’re safe enough to be above food during production. This is because, if they drip down onto the line, there’s no problem. H2 lubricants aren’t as expensive as their H1 cousins, which adds to their appeal. But, since they’re based on petroleum stocks, they’re not permitted under any circumstances to come into contact with food. For this reason, they’re kept “below the line,” meaning they can be used anywhere in the plant except on or above the level where food passes by on a conveyor, in an oven, on a shrink wrapper, etc. The idea is that as long as the lube is below the food, it can’t go anywhere but down to the floor.

Still, there have been instances where below-the-line lubes have inadvertently splashed upward and landed on food. It is rare, but it can happen. And, when it does, the consequences can be serious.

For example, almost 3 tons of turkey sausages were recalled in 1996 because of grease contamination, and 490,000 pounds of smoked ham were recalled because gear lubricant was causing a “burning taste.” Also, in 2000, 86,000 pounds of sliced and packaged turkey products, mostly deli meats, were voluntarily recalled because of exposure to a non-food-grade lube. Consumers reported off-odors and temporary intestinal discomfort.

Also in 2000, some varieties of a leading baby food were contaminated with mineral oil lubricant, possibly from a machine in the manufacturing process or from the can manufacturing process. In 2002, Australian authorities recalled loads of soft drinks because of mineral oil contamination. Also that year, Denmark recalled 1,100 tons of milk powder, which were contaminated by just under a liter of lubricating oil containing very fine iron particles. The problem was traced back to a worn axle in a gearbox, which allowed oil to seep out through a ball joint and into the powdered milk. The list goes on.

Reducing risk

Eric Peter, president of JAX Inc., says there are obvious issues when selecting the lubricant to provide the best performance for each intended application. “The food industry adds another layer from two perspectives,” he notes. “From the food safety perspective, having H1 lubes in all critical points of the process is essential. From the maintenance perspective, the quality of the H1 products needs to be at a level that will not adversely affect machinery performance.” Peter adds that the sheer number of OEMs in the industry also presents a challenge. “There is no ‘big three’ in the food and beverage arena. New technologies are born every week.”

Today, more and more food companies are dropping their H2 lubes and going 100 percent food grade instead. Why? According to Bill Gay, Bel-Ray senior technical manager, “Eliminating H2 lubricants reduces the risk of cross-contamination and increases FDA’s understanding of how a company is complying with its regulations.”

Being simple is being safe—and smart. Reducing complexity reduces the margin for error. In other words, if there are no H2 lubes in a plant, there’s no way a mix-up through mislabeling or misreading can occur.

However, Peter points out, making a total H1 conversion can be quite difficult in many plants because of applications, such as internal combustion engines and others, that will likely never have viable H1 solutions.

“Nonetheless, the trend to converting as much as possible to H1 is growing, and with the enhanced performance of H1 lubes over the years, it’s being done with few or no negative effects,” Peters says.

Sliding with the enemy

Lubricants have some formidable foes in a production environment: moisture, heat, the lack of heat (i.e., freezers), “shear down” or just plain running 24/7.

Water is definitely needed in a plant for cleaning and sanitation. But, while it washes away contaminants, water (especially at high pressure) can also wash out lubes, particularly oils, resulting in naked metal parts and resultant wear.

In this type of situation, Paul Llewellyn, general sales manager, Lubrication Engineers, says, “Two things happen: One, the asset is subject to rust and corrosion; and two, the amount and cost of lubricant goes up exponentially to replace what was washed down the drain.”

Heat can be just as big a problem. Like water, heat can cause liquid lubes to oxidize and greases to melt and disappear, leaving raw metal parts on their own, shortening their life and increasing production costs and downtime.

Cold is often equally challenging. Lubes and greases, unless specially formulated for low temperatures, can become sluggish and create wear. Cold areas also may add to moisture and washout problems due to condensation.

Shear down is basically lube exhaustion. Day after day of continuous use stresses not only systems—but lubes, as well. After inordinate amounts of use, grease may “shear down,” or become very soft or liquid; oils may oxidize; and both can become contaminated. On the other hand, certain grades of lubricants may harden in service, increasing power demands and associated costs.

There are a number of other threats, as well, but today’s lube leaders know all about them and can tailor the right product to fit any company’s special needs and circumstances.

“Food processors look for the same things any industrial user would: longer lubrication intervals and longer equipment life, plus the added demand of meeting food safety regulations,” says Peter. JAX has nearly 300 products designed for the food processing industry, including the JAX Pyro-Kote line of high-temperature chain oils for oven processes, H1 Compresyn compressor oils and JAX Halo-Guard specialty greases.

Hygienic production and certifications

According to Toby Porter, Klüber Lubrication NA LP food market manager, “From our perspective, some of the most important lubrication issues in the food processing industry are safety and uptime. When selecting lubricants, a food producer must remember that, even beyond NSF H1, there’s the ISO 21469 standard that certifies the formulation and production process for a lubricant is hygienic.”

Klüber, like JAX, also has hundreds of NSF-registered lubricants for a multitude of applications. Jim Girard, Lubriplate, vice president/CMO, stresses the importance of ensuring the lubricant supplier possesses all the necessary documentation to verify its lubricants are, in fact, H1 food grade. “Get certificates from NSF and letters of guarantee from your manufacturers. Also make sure suppliers are using new drums for shipments to avoid any contaminants [left behind] from previous use,” Girard stresses.

Girard notes that, in Canada, the CFIA no longer authorizes lubricants. “In July 2014, the government of Canada repealed the requirement for the pre-registration of construction materials, packaging materials and non-food chemicals used in federally registered meat establishments. Food machinery lubricants fall under the non-food chemical category.”

Girard continues, “However, food establishments remain responsible for demonstrating the lubricants used in their facilities are safe and suitable for their intended use. The CFIA has indicated one way food establishments can do this is by obtaining a letter from their lubricant supplier that guarantees all the materials in the formulation are safe and suitable for the intended application.”

He adds that today’s H1 food-grade products are not only safer and, for the most part, better performers than conventional lubes, they’re also more economical in the long run—despite higher upfront costs—because they last longer.

Executives at Exxon Mobil Industrial Lubrications say more demands will continue to be made on lubes, because machines are getting smaller and faster all the time—meaning less lube volume and more load. Mobil SHC Cibus H1 lubricant offers up to 3.6 percent energy savings, particularly for gearboxes, while Mobil SHC Polyrex synthetic greases feature long life, maximum equipment protection, reduced lube usage, high-temperature endurance and resistance to oxidation.

For example, a Tennessee-based food processor was using meat grinders to package sausages. The machine’s gearboxes were lubricated with a standard 80W-90 lubricant, which is notoriously vulnerable to water contamination. ExxonMobil engineers recommended transitioning to Mobil SHC Cibus 150 high-performance, NSF H1-registered synthetic lubricant designed to provide water separation and corrosion protection in a wide variety of food machine applications. In addition, desiccant breathers were recommended to minimize contamination.

The switch made an immediate impact. Water drained quickly from the gearbox reservoirs; oil drain intervals were reduced with less lubricant disposal; and gearbox failures decreased. These improvements generate an annual savings of $325,000.

Synthetic or mineral/ vegetable based?

Lubrication Engineers produces mineral- and synthetic-based lubricants tailored to application requirements and OEM recommendations for the equipment. “If the temperature is constantly above 160°F, we lean toward a synthetic. If the temperature is below 0°F, we do the same,” states Paul Llewellyn, asset reliability training & education manager. “That said, there is a place for both mineral- and synthetic-based products in today’s tough manufacturing environments.”

Lubrication Engineers manufactures more than 200 lubricants, including H1 Quinplex food machinery lubricant, H1 Quinplex white gear lubricant, H1 Syn chain lubricant, H1 Quinplex penetrating oil and lubricant, H1 Quincal Syn FG grease and H1 Quinplex Syn FG gear oil.

Ultrachem Inc. produces conventional and synthetic oils but, according to Glenn Krasley, Ultrachem Inc. director of sales & marketing (Canadian territory), “…very little on the conventional [petroleum] side.

“Synthetics can withstand wider temperature extremes, and they last three to five times longer than petroleum, reducing change outs and waste disposal costs,” adds Krasley. “Synthetics also are more efficient, in most cases, and can reduce energy costs, particularly at initial start-up of a motor.”

Still, Krasley notes there is, and will continue to be, a demand for conventional H2 lubricants. “But food producers must be sure there is zero chance of the lubricant coming into contact with their food or beverage products. If there’s even a remote possibility, FG lubricants should be used.”

Citgo Petroleum Corporation produces conventional and synthetic products under the Clarion label, as well as fire-resistant varieties, specifically for hydraulic systems. Citgo Clarion SynBar barrier fluids for mechanical seals are used to keep food products separated, ensuring purity during manufacturing and handling.

Huskey Specialty Lubricants recently added a new high-performance, biodegradable grease to its lineup. Called Huskey Co-Lube EP 2, it is a combination of USA-grown, natural seed oils treated with antioxidants and extreme-pressure, anti-wear and anti-corrosion additives. PTFE (polytetrafluorethylene, better known as Teflon) is added to further enhance load capacity and reduce friction.

“This blend, together with its synthetic, shear-stable thickening system, provides advanced protection against friction, wear and corrosion,” says Huskey vice president Mike Montgomery. “It’s a multi-service grease for extended use in temperatures from -20°F to 500°F. It’s also NSF/USDA-registered and kosher-approved,” he adds.

Applications include all roller, sleeve and pillow block bearings, bushings, couplings, universal joints and sliding surfaces where a multipurpose or extreme-pressure grease is required. It’s available in 14-oz. disposable gun loader cartridges, 5-gal. pails, 15-gal. kegs and 55-gal. drums.

Proper use is key

When applied correctly and according to spec, lubes can improve a plant’s food safety and efficiency. However, studies have shown an alarming 65 percent of plant stoppages and equipment failures are a result of the improper use of lubes.

Many things can help protect people in all aspects of life, especially when it comes to food. Lubrication is definitely one of them.

For more information:

Eric Peter, JAX Inc., 262-781-8850,,

Bill Gay, Bel-Ray Company LLC, CLS, 848-220-0549,,

Toby Porter, Klüber Lubrication NA LP, c/o Jonathan Bishop, 603-647-4104,,

Jim Girard, Lubriplate, 973-589-9150,,

ExxonMobil, c/oTomi Maxted, Weber Shandwick PR,,

Ben Briseno, Citgo Petroleum, 832-486-4000,,

Paul Llewellyn, Lubrication Engineers, c/o Paul Grimes, 800-537-7683 x6807,,

Mike Montgomery, Huskey Specialty Lubricants, 951-340-4000,,

Glenn Krasley, Ultrachem Inc., c/o Bill Mauer, Macrovision Inc., 215-348-1010,,

National Lubricating Grease Institute (NLGI), 816-524-2500,,