Market Topics

Awash in Challenges


When it comes to lubricants, food processors can be pretty high-maintenance, observes Sean OMalley, business manager of industrial lubricants at CPI Engineering, a specialty lube manufacturer in Midland, Mich. Their big demand is that the oil supplier become the oil manager for the plant, more than we see in other industries. They expect their oil supplier to keep all the oils in stock for them, plus maintain the inventory levels at the plant, for each machine.

That doesnt surprise him, given the critical nature of the product and the capital-intensive nature of the food business. Especially as the economy has improved, OMalley said hes seen many food processors investing in high output equipment, which tends to operate at greater temperatures, speeds and loads than older machinery.

Put the two trends together – a thirst for service plus higher performing equipment – and youve got a ripe market for synthetic food-grade lubricants, he indicated.

For some of this new equipment, lubricant drain intervals will become more frequent if you continue using the traditional, white oil based food-grade lubricants, he explained. The higher temperatures lead to greater oxidation, which can be solved with high-tech fluids such as polyalphaolefin, polyalkylene glycol and silicone.

Dave Garner, Molykote general manager, food and beverage products, for Dow Corning in Meriden, U.K., also is seeing greater demand from the food-processing industry for lubrication audits and maintenance advice. He said plants today want lubrication, not just lubricants.

In recent years, he added, anxiety has driven some customers to install H1 lubricants and greases throughout their operations. H1 products are approved for use where incidental food contact may inadvertently occur, like oven chains, valves or gearboxes mounted above the food line. Colorless, odorless, and formulated from a restrictive palette of ingredients considered safe in small quantities, H1 lubes cost more than H2 lubes, which are permitted where no food contact can occur – in the wheel bearings of a brewerys forklift truck, for example.

International food giant Nestle was in the forefront of those requesting only H1 lubricants be used throughout their plants, rather than risk mixing up the two. Some grocery retailers also picked up the trend, worried about selling foods that may be contaminated in any way.

Garner views this fear-driven philosophy with dismay. Some lube sellers are advising users they need to use H1 products throughout the plant. Weve actually told customers from day one thats not necessary, he said. If the plant and its maintenance run to best practices, of course they will want to use H1 products in those applications where there may be possible incidental food contact. But if theyre handling things correctly – and that means tagging, storage, training, separate grease guns – then H2 products can be used in the same plant, and they are better in most applications – especially those that are away from the food line.

If a gearbox is hundreds of meters away from the food line, or on a wall outside, why put an H1 lube into it? Garner asked. From a cost perspective its more expensive, and the performance will be better with H2. By their very nature, with H1 lubes there are a lot of additives you cannot use. But with good practices, you do not need to go down that all-H1 route.

Best practices can also help satisfy HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), the risk management program now embraced in the U.S., Europe and parts of Asia. HACCP expects food companies to analyze and manage the risks in their plants – including lubricants.

Steven Cohen, spokesman for the U.S. Agriculture Departments Food Safety and Inspection Service, confirms this. He points out that the United States launched HACCP for large food processors in 1998, and then extended it to cover smaller plants in 2000, so its had a solid five years to percolate through the industry.

Under HACCP, Cohen related, the plants have to demonstrate they make a safe product and what steps they take to prevent contamination. We test and inspect and examine their products, and also their records and their processes. With this science-based approach, the rates for food-borne pathogens have fallen dramatically over the past few years.

FSIS inspectors will ask food companies to provide data to validate what nonfood compounds theyre using, their control processes and their safety planning. If theyre using food-grade lubricants, we need to see the scientific information to make that claim, the Washington, D.C., based Cohen said. They need to show us the documentation that is the case. Many government inspectors now log on to the NSF White Book Listing of approved nonfood compounds (updated constantly at to verify that food-grade lubricants which claim H1 status really have it.

These mandates, plus the need to keep H1 ingredients and products segregated, all drive up costs, CPIs OMalley noted. But they dont make H1 lubes better. For example, he said, an air compressor used in the food-processing industry will run at pretty much the same temperatures and pressures as in normal industrial applications. But with the more restricted additive package and base fluid combinations that are available, its difficult to formulate to the same level of performance. Synthetic base oils are one of the best ways to boost performance, but even those are limited in choice.

Thats why he and other lube blenders are looking forward to a new food-grade, low-viscosity polyalkylene glycol from Dow Chemical. Until now, only high-viscosity PAG, suitable for heavy gear oils and greases, had approval for use in food-grade lubes. With this low-vis product, a more robust hydraulic fluid might be created – perhaps even a fire-resistant one, OMalley speculated.

Dow Chemical previewed the PAG at the recent STLE meeting in Las Vegas, and promised more test data later this year. PAGs offer greater performance in low-temperature applications than mineral oils, plus they have very clean operation, said David Kantor, senior account manager for UCON fluids at Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich. However, they are more expensive so they tend to be used in long-life, high-temperature areas. The new food-grade PAG will be water soluble, biodegradable and meet ISO grade 32, 46, 68 and 100 viscosities, to boost energy-efficiency in compressors and hydraulics.

Approaching the HACCP issue from a different perspective is Dan Korona, business development manager, food and beverage industry, at SKF USA Inc. in Kulpsville, Pa., which supplies bearings to food-processing machinery manufacturers as well as replacement components for existing equipment. In general, Korona sees end-users wanting maintenance-free equipment, greased for life and food friendly. At the same time, machinery manufacturers are seeking traceability and durability in the materials they use – and the greases used in them. The ideal for both, he says, is equipment that has no grease lines, no fittings, no remote dispensers.

We have several products now that are lubed for life, and that requires two things: One is a lubricant that can last for the life of the bearing, holding up under wide temperatures, speeds and washdowns. Two, weve designed a tenacious, good seal that holds the lubricant in and keeps the moisture and contaminants out. That means its also not possible for the grease to leak out.

Sounds good, but few plants are there yet. There is a lot of water, with daily, high-pressure washdowns where water can penetrate the seals, Dow Cornings Garner commented. And once oil and water emulsify in the gear boxes, things can go downhill rapidly. For example, he describes a U.K. client that produces sandwiches for retail sale. At shifts end each day, for two hours they wash and hose down every piece of equipment, and then they have to go through and regrease every piece. No way can a lubricant withstand those high-pressure hoses.

In this operation, theres a gearbox holding 5 liters of oil, and it takes two hours to relubricate it because you have to undo the entire slicing machine to get to it, he continued. So we recommended a synthetic lubricant that doesnt emulsify with water, and also worked with their maintenance people to take some simple steps – like adding a valve to drain the excess water each day so the gearbox is not sitting full of water overnight.

Thats an example of best practice. Its not just selling the product, but showing how to correctly apply and use it.