While lubricants typically operate unseen, they play a crucial role in the daily operation of plants and factories processing food, beverage, and medicine.
Like all lubricants, those used in industries producing consumable products are designed to minimise energy use, clean, reduce wear and tear, and protect equipment from extreme heat and corrosive forces. However, as well as ensuring that mechanical systems – which range from hydraulics and compressors to high-temperature ovens, driers and conveyor belts – perform at optimum capacity, food industry lubricants must also attain this objective while using ingredients that can have no adverse impact on consumers should they be inadvertently ingested in trace amounts.
There are multiple points in any given food or beverage processing plant where common lubricants like oils and greases could potentially make accidental contact with a product designed for human or animal consumption. For instance, compressors might blow out trace amounts of oil along with compressed air, factory machine gears might leak lubricant when close to produce, or conveyor belts could potentially drip lubricant on underlying machinery carrying products.
In most other industries, such incidents are regarded as a mere inconvenience. However, for firms in the food and beverage sector, the impact of product being contaminated by lubricants is far more acute, especially given the renewed focus on increasing safety protocols within the industry.
To this end, the current regulations in place regarding the lubrication solutions used with food and beverage processing plants, applications and equipment go above and beyond the protocols and requirements for typical industrial lubricants.
To help prevent accidental contamination of food, drinks, and medicine with lubricants a clear system was designed to help guide operators in the industry. With an understanding that some stages of an application or areas of a processing plant present a greater risk of contamination than others, a tier system was developed with three different classifications of food grade lubricant. The tier system clearly shows lubricant users in the food industry when and why a lubricant will be suitable to avoid unwanted incidents.
The term “Food Grade” is often confusing to some industry operators as not all Food Grade lubricants are suitable for use near food, but areas of a plant where contact is unlikely.
Food-grade lubricant tiers explained
At present, there are three different tiers of lubricant that can safely be used within food and beverage making plants. These are labelled H1, H2, and H3 and can be specifically selected depending on how likely it is that they will be in contact with consumable products. Below are the three categories and where they are applicable for use, so let’s take a look at them:
This category includes food-grade lubricants which can be used within environments where food and drink is processed where there is a possibility that incidental contact could occur with consumables. The FDA states that lubricant formulations in the H1 class may only be made of one or more approved ingredients on its list. This includes base stocks, thickeners and additives.
These lubricants are deployed on machine parts and equipment in areas of a processing plant where there is entirely no possibility that a lubricated surface or lubricant can come into contact with consumable produce. Understandably, this means that H2 lubricants don’t have a clearly defined list of ingredients that are acceptable. However, regulations insist that they must not contain heavy metals like lead, arsenic, or selenium, as well as mineral acids, carcinogens, teratogens and mutagens.
Finally, H3 lubricants are edible or soluble oils, which are used to prevent rust forming on meat hooks, packing trolleys and other types of equipment and keep it hygienic. While these are food-grade lubricants, such oils must always be wiped off before the equipment is used and has contact with food or drinks.
Registering lubricants as food grade
Today, lubricant makers can register the lubrication solution they provide, as H1, H2 or H3 classes via either InS in Europe or the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) in the United States. These organisations review all lubrication products submitted and verify if they are applicable within the FDA’s list of substances permitted. If they are, the products are then added to the list of approved lubrication solutions. The NSF’s official website includes this list, which now has more than 14,000 different no-food-contact and incidental-food-contact lubricants, that can be easily viewed prior to purchase from a dependable stockist.
Additionally the NSF also operates a certification program entitled “Safety of Machinery-Lubricants with Incidental Product Contact – Hygiene Requirements” (ANSI-accredited ISO 21469) that offer independent and unbiased third-party assessments of a company product’s conformity to the specific hygiene requirements for the development, formulation, manufacturing, use, and handling of food grade lubricants that may potentially come into contact with consumable products at processing plants.