What’s the Future of Food Lubes?


DUBROVNIK, Croatia – The food-grade lubricants industry can help address concerns about mineral oil hydrocarbons getting into food by developing clear global regulations and fast, affordable test methods, a speaker said at the European Lubricating Grease Institutes annual meeting here.

Food is emotion, said Andre Adam of Fragol GmbH & Co. KG, Mlheim, Germany. It has our attention, many times per day, every day. Unfortunately, he added, food and more specifically the health related issues coming from manufacturing and malpractice with food have drawn a lot of attention in the press. Many of the scandals are still fresh in our memory, Adam said at ELGIs 26th annual general meeting in April. And unfortunately, in a number of the incidents, lubricants were identified as being the problem.

Whether the incidents were accurately reported does not really matter, he continued. What matters is that when lubricants are mentioned in relation to food and risk, our industry is in the news in a less than positive way, he said.

Adam continued that when the press mentions oil, it does not discriminate between a carefully designed H1 lubricant and crude oil, motor oil or gas oil. H1 lubricants are used in food-processing environments where there is a possibility of incidental food contact. The many papers reporting about oil in food often use terms like might cause, could result, and are possibly because many of the effects are not yet sufficiently tested, he said. What is generally accepted is that aromatic hydrocarbons are a risk for human health.

But the base oils used in H1 lubricants are made of highly refined mineral oil hydrocarbons and should be aromatic free. If aromatic hydrocarbons do get in our food, there must be another source, Adam contended.

Mineral oils enter peoples bodies in many different ways. And aromatics can enter the food chain in the fields where harvesting and transporting equipment can contaminate crops with lubricant leaks and exhaust fumes, he noted. Bags made from jute vegetable fibers are known to contaminate chocolate because some parts of the world soften the fibers by soaking them in used engine oil.

Adam pointed out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 21 Code of Federal Regulations permits the use of mineral oil in food production. This could be from a defoamer, mold release agent or sealants, he said. Other sources include oil leaking from production equipment and transfers from packaging materials like plastics and recycled paper.

Can we avoid mineral oil hydrocarbons in our food? Adam asked. Other than naturally occurring mineral oil hydrocarbons, the answer would possibly be yes. However, this would have enormous consequences for our food production. A total redesign of all equipment, from the crop field to the final production plant and different packaging materials would be required, he said. This would have an enormous impact because other expensive steps would be needed, such as eliminating exposure of fields to combustion products.

Must we avoid mineral oil hydrocarbons in our food? Adam continued. This is something we do not know for a fact today. Many studies have been done and some results are not conclusive.

Much more work will be required, he said, but with sufficient study, the industry should be able to prove a reasonable level of safety that would be acceptable for the worlds regulatory bodies.

Adam said that several things can be done to help users.

The main thing would be to work toward one globally recognized standard in food lubricants, Adam said. It would be desirable to have a few clear, globally agreed rules that are communicated to all parties in a clear and transparent fashion, avoiding confusion for customers, users and decision makers. If we are clear and transparent in what we do, we might be able to convince decision makers that additional regulation of our market is not necessary.

One problem is the difference between Europe and the United States. The U.S. dictates a maximum level of 10 parts per million of mineral oil hydrocarbons in food. The European Union approaches mineral oil hydrocarbons in food from a different angle, specifying an acceptable daily intake, which represents all intakes during the day from all possible sources. The problem lies in the fact that this is not measurable at the food production level, said Adam. Thus, the aim should be a zero entrance of mineral oil hydrocarbons into food. This would require a redesign of food-producing equipment and a drastic change in a number of production methods.

Adam suggested that the industry needs fast and affordable test methods to determine the level of mineral oil hydrocarbons in food. We also need clear, global regulations. Many food materials come from countries where no limits are set, or where limits are set at U.S. FDA levels, he added. These goods could face problems entering the European market.

He called for better education for lubricant users and decision makers about the key factors for safe plant operation with relation to lubricants. Also, clear communication to the general public and lawmakers about the risks of mineral oil hydrocarbons is a must, he said.

There is a future for lubricants in food production simply because the vast quantity of food demands mechanized production, Adam concluded. Whether lubricants will have the same composition as today or if they will be from different base oils is not yet determined.

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