California Cracks Down on SA, SB Oils


The state of California is stepping up its enforcement of a law requiring marketers of API SA and SB engine oils to label them as obsolete and potentially harmful to modern engines.

Over the past few months, the state Department of Food and Agricultures Division of Measurement Standards has been quarantining containers found in retail stores with improper labels. The law has won favorable comments, even from those nabbed by it. Still, those same companies predict the campaign will do little to dissuade motorists from using SA and SB oils.

The California Business and Professions Code requires obsolete oils sold in containers sized one gallon or smaller to display warning labels following sample language contained in SAE J183, SAEs standard for engine oil performance. The language for SA oils warns that they contain no additives, are not suitable for most gasoline engines built after 1930 and may cause unsatisfactory performance or equipment damage in modern engines. The language for categories SB through SG is similar except that they identify different obsolete dates and do not refer to additives.

In April, the Division of Measurement Standards circulated letters notifying motor oil marketers of its decision to enforce the rule more stringently. Since then, inspectors have ordered mislabeled containers removed from stores until proper labels are applied.

The law has been on the books for quite a few years, said David Lazier, chief of the divisions petroleum products branch. Weve just taken a more direct stance on it due to the fact that were seeing a lot of SA oils in the market place, on shelves right along with SL. Unfortunately, the public isnt aware that these oils may not protect their vehicles.

Among those to have product quarantined is Amalie Oil Co., a Tampa, Florida-based blenderwith a distribution center in Los Angeles. Amalie officials said that, because of Californias labeling requirements, the company has a policy of not selling SA or SB oils in the state, but that one of its customers diverted product that was supposed to be sold elsewhere.

Weve told our customers that selling non-detergent oil in California is a no-no, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Dennis J. Madden said. We try to stay on top of it by asking people where the oil is going. But if a guy buys from us and says hes going to ship to Singapore or some place else, I have no way of knowing what he does with it.

Industry sources say they know of no other state with requirements like Californias. Madden said he supports the rule, despite the inconvenience of having to determine what to do with the quarantined product.

As long as it applies to everybody, I dont have a problem with it, he said. He added that Amalie recognizes the inadequacies of SA and SB oils, despite selling significant quantities of them in Latin America and Puerto Rico.

We would rather not sell non-detergent oil, Madden said. Theres no question that its not good for todays engines. I tell people, Its not going to give your car a heart attack. Its more like cancer. But a lot of people are only concerned with price and theyll buy that stuff because its 30 cents cheaper. And as long as people are going to buy non-detergent oils, and other companies are going to sell them, we feel like we have to compete.

Coastal Unilube Inc., of Memphis, Tenn., is also among those to have SA oil pulled from shelves recently. President and Chief Operating Officer R. Kent Farmer said his company had not received prior notice of the stepped-up enforcement. Coastal has already switched to new labels that meet the California requirements.

Farmer, too, acknowledged that SA and SB oils dont stand up to current engine oil standards. He maintained, however, that most motorists who use them do so to a limited extent that may avoid damaging engines.

Its amazing that people still buy them, he said. But I think people are buying a quart at a time. Theyre not walking out with a case of it, so I dont think people are doing full changes with SA or SB.

Lazier said most companies that have had containers removed from shelves decide to stop selling SA and SB oils in California. If the trend continues, he said, motorists in the state may benefit simply from having less of such products available.

Farmer and Madden expressed skepticism, saying there will always be motorists who choose their oil based on price and that there will always be marketers to sell to them.

I dont think its going to have an impact at all, Farmer said. How many people pick up a container and read the label on it?

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