Thirst for Food-grade Lubes Slow to Build in China


In developed markets, it is common practice for food and beverage processors to use food-grade lubricants on their equipment to ensure the safety of their products. In China, food safety ranks as a top concern among the public, but an industry newspaper reported recently that there is a trend for processors to use cooking oils instead of lubes.

A March article in Beijing-based China Food quoted several unnamed sources from processors – mostly frozen food manufacturers – saying they have replaced industrial lubricants with cooking oils. The article states that companies consider cooking oils effective lubricants that are pollution-free and safe.

Several processors declined requests for interviews from Lube Report Asia, but one of Chinas few domestic suppliers of food-grade lubricants said the story sounds accurate.

In the U.S., annual consumption of food-grade lubricants is about 700,000 tons, compared with maybe less than 170,000 tons in China, Wang Biao, general manager at Tianjin Kaiwei and Yongu United Chemical, told Lube Report Asia. Given the huge number of Chinese food manufacturers, I think its highly possible that they are using whatever [material] is convenient for them, including cooking oils.

Food-grade lubes are non-toxic, tasteless, odorless fluids and greases designed not to pose health risks or taint products if there is incidental contact with food or beverages. Cooking oils are non-toxic and do possess lubricating properties, but they deteriorate under high temperatures that are common in food processing and can become contaminated with bacteria that could lead to safety issues.

Founded in 2010 by Tianjin Kaiwei Investment and Tianjin Bohua Yongli Chemical Industry, Kaiwei sells white oils in the food and cosmetics industries. Early this year, it also obtained approval from Chinas food and drug administration to sell pharmaceutical grade white oils in the country.

Kaiwei refines white oils using Chevron precious metal catalysts for hydrogenation. Wang said the company has gained some big food clients, such as Pepsi and the Taiwanese conglomerate Ting Hisin International.

Right now, only big food companies in China would pay attention to details like lubes, Wang said.

But perhaps not every big company.

Shandong province-based Joyoung is well-known for its extensive portfolio of household soymilk and juice makers. In 2011, Chinese media reported Joyoung was using carcinogenic industrial lubes for the motors in its equipment. Joyoung issued statements insisting it uses Krytox food-grade lubes from Dupont, but the scandal stirred alarm nationwide.

If a company like Joyoung could use industrial lubes, we really shouldnt be optimistic about juice makers from smaller Chinese companies, Wang said. After all, cost is a big concern among Chinese food manufacturers.

Under food safety laws that China adopted in 2009, use of food-grade lubes is required for food manufacturers that want to be certified for using good manufacturing practices. However, unlike in the pharmaceutical industry, such certification is not mandatory in the food industry.

This is the key reason for Kaiwei to position itself primarily as an export company.

Our annual production capacity is about 100,000 tons, and we know its more than enough to supply the domestic market, Wang said.

Kaiwei obtains food-grade certification from U.S.-based NSF for oils marketed in the United States and has approvals from Swiss testing agency SGS for products sent to the European Union. But the majority of Kaiweis foreign clients are from Southeast Asia.

Although the Chinese government has in recent years tightened policies aimed at improving food safety, Wang doubted the government will do much to help sales of food-grade lubes.

Ingredients, additives, packaging materials… there are too many other things that need our authorities attention, and Im sure something as detailed as food-grade lubricants is not one of them right now, Wang said.

Other companies agree with Wang that there is no surge of food-grade lube sales looming for the Chinese market. However, some are nevertheless optimistic about the future.

We think its true that as China continues to take food safety issues seriously, more Chinese food companies will be aware of the importance of food-grade lubes and start to use them, but it surely takes time, said a spokesman for Fuchs Petrolub, the worlds largest independent specialty lubricant manufacturer. So at the current stage we dont expect sales will increase dramatically, but in the future the business in China should grow further.

Mannheim, Germany-based Fuchs started offering Cassida food-grade lubricants in China in October 2010 after buying the brand from Shell. The product slate includes food-grade oils and greases covering all food-related industries. All Cassida products sold in China are imported from Germany.

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