Pitching Food-grade Lubes to Palm Industry

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As Europeans consider regulating the presence of two categories of mineral hydrocarbons in food, some palm oil producers in Southeast Asia are turning to food-grade lubricants in an effort to maintain access to the market.

To date much of the palm oil supply chain does not use food-grade lubes, but marketers of such products see a potential opportunity in the concerns being raised over mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons.

There are health concerns about both types of chemicals. Some studies have suggested that MOSH can cause liver damage, while MOAH contain components that are potentially carcinogenic. Numerous studies in recent years have found both types of chemicals present in foods and in humans, specifically in areas such as the liver and body fat. Studies have found that the chemicals can get into foods from inks printed onto packaging and that they can leach from plastic packaging. Some researchers hypothesize that they may also come into contact with crops during harvesting and that they may even be ubiquitous in the environment.

Research continues, and the chemicals are not currently regulated in Europe, but the European Union has established a monitoring program, and the German government is considering proposals that would set limits on their levels in food and require measures aimed at preventing their migration into foods.

The issue has begun to concern some in Southeast Asia’s palm oil industry because Europe is a large and lucrative end-user market. Palm oil is the world’s mostly widely consumed vegetable oil, and most of it comes from Southeast Asia.

Some companies that refine raw palm oil into products such as edible oils or personal care ingredients have begun using food-grade lubricants in their factories instead of mineral oil based lubes in order to prevent MOSH and MOAH from getting into their products. In 2018, Malaysia’s major palm oil company, United Plantations Sdn., set up a MOSH and MOAH mitigation task force chaired by its chief executive officer to look into the production process in their mills and refineries. Executive Director Martin Bek-Nielsen told Lube Report recently, “We [now] have various procedures in place to try and minimize various contaminants that may be found.”

Musim Mas Holdings, headquartered in Singapore with plantations in Indonesia and refineries in the region, said in its company blog that “since 2018, the company embarked on rigorous process optimization reviews and employed the use of food-grade lubricants used for all machines, reduced contact, and continually revised the engineering process flow to achieve even lower amounts of such contaminants.”

These companies use food-grade lubricants even though they cost significantly more than mineral oil based products because they expect MOSH and MOAH levels will eventually be regulated in Europe.

“Regulations from member states such as Germany quite often end up being adopted by the greater Europe – a trend which we have seen in the past,” United Plantations stated in its 2018 annual report, adding that European palm oil users were already showing a preference for suppliers meeting unmandated guidelines for limiting MOSH and MOAH levels. The company

“is now able to meet stringent customer demand for oils used in the production of infant formulas. We are committed to further reduce the levels of these contaminants to the benefit of the customers globally.”

Now food-grade lubricant marketers are trying to make in-roads further up the palm oil supply chain – with companies that harvest palm trees and mill them to extract raw oil.

“If there is contamination in the upstream, there will be a problem even if the downstream refineries like edible oil producers comply,” said Norman Kum, CEO of Sumber Petroleum Cemerlang Sdn., an industrial and food-grade lubricant manufacturer in Malaysia.

“There are about 500 palm oil mills in Malaysia, and 90 percent of them are not using food-grade lubricants. If contamination happens, people will lose jobs, and there will be branding and legal implications. The Philippines and Indonesia are also getting the pressure.”

The palm industry is not alone in having yet to embrace food-grade lubes, Kum added, citing companies that make syrups used in beverage manufacturing as another example. “They say that they have been around for more than 30 to 40 years and nobody dies from their drinks,” he said.

Companies taking steps to guard against MOSH and MOAH are still waiting to see if the European Union decides to regulate the chemicals.

“There is still much discussion on what the actual threshold limits are for MOSH and MOAH, and before any firm figure is announced and agreed upon, we have our internal targets and various procedures in place to try minimize contaminants,” said Bek-Nielsen.

Palm oil producers in Malaysia are guided by the recommendations of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, which is also the regulatory and licensing agency for palm oil producers. “We are talking to MPOB about limits and educating them so that the mills in upstream are under control with the setup of proper guidelines,” said Kum.

“The whole supply chain from raw materials to production procedure to packaging has to work towards food safety and not only point the finger at the food-grade lubricant,” he added.

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