If the squeaky wheel gets the grease, then the well-lubricated machine gets the uptime and, ultimately, the better margin and safer end product.

Given the tight operations run by meat and poultry processors today, there is no time to waste when it comes to equipment efficiency and no steps to miss when it comes to food safety.

Food-grade lubricants (oils, fluids and greases) play a vital role in ensuring systems are running safely, smoothly and at the necessary capacity.

After all, when machines are in need of lubricants, it can be frustratingly apparent, in the form of equipment that is not operating properly, at the optimum speed or, worse yet, breaks down during a run. “We are seeing a lot of companies trying to keep equipment running longer, up to seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” says Colleen Flanagan, category portfolio manager for Petro-Canada in Mississauga, Ontario, a provider of greases, oils and fluids.

As the economy remains uncertain and as processors seek to rein in budgets, they also look to food-grade lubricants to extend the operating life of their equipment. “Plants are trying to do more with less and are all trying to drive costs down. Lubes have to work better and faster,” says Eric Peter, president of industrial lubricant company JAX Inc., Menomonee Falls, Wis. He adds that today’s operators realize they can maximize equipment life through preventive maintenance steps like lubrication – thereby avoiding capital investments in new systems.

Other providers of lubricants used in meat and poultry facilities agree that continually running systems require more preventative maintenance, including lubricants that prevent both operational problems and potential food-safety issues. “The old adage of ‘Any lubricant will do’ has been replaced with ‘How do I better maintain my plant equipment to minimize downtime, better manage my risk and minimize potential liability due to food contamination throughout all areas of the plant?’” says Scott Riebel, manager of lubricants supply for Houston-based CITGO Petroleum Corp, which offers a line of food-grade lubricants, including the Clarion line of pure white mineral oils used in many meat and poultry facilities.

To that end, the food-safety climate in today’s plants, even compared to a decade ago, is more focused on targeted interventions, including the use of lubricants that may come into contact with food products. “From consumer groups to regulatory agencies, the growing concern in the United States and abroad relates to the safety of food products reaching the marketplace. This has caused all parties involved at all levels of food processing, from the feedlots to the processing plants, to recognize and require the need for higher quality food-grade lubricants throughout the meat and poultry processing system, particularly in areas where incidental contact with food products can occur,” Riebel says.

Lubricants are an effective – and comparatively cost-effective – hurdle in the multi-hurdle approach to preventing safety-related recalls and averting a food-safety crisis, according to Riebel. “The incremental cost of requiring food-grade lubricants throughout a processing plant represents an incredibly small investment when you consider the potential issues that can and do arise by not using them,” he points out.

Making the (food) grade
Processors can choose from an array of choices for their systems, depending on the machine, the product and their own operation.

CITGO’s diverse line includes products such as food-grade fireresistant hydraulic oils, food-grade white oil-based hydraulic and gear oils, food-grade greases and foodgrade straight white mineral oils, along with synthetic oils for refrigeration and gears. One of the company’s newest products is its Clarion food-grade chain and trolley lube.

“That lube was specifically formulated to lubricate the hooks and trolley systems that often run for hundreds of yards through high-volume meat processing facilities. Those systems often carry many tons of meats as they pass through the many stages in a processing facility,” explains Riebel, noting the new lube is safe for any incidental contact in that processing step.

JAX also offers several solutions for meat and poultry applications, including greases, fluids and specialty products and newer features like an additive with antimicrobial properties for extra protection. “That is helpful because the processor doesn’t have to worry about lubes as a source of contamination,” Peter notes. He adds JAX has become more focused on turnkey solutions in recent years, offering equipment solutions and application equipment for lubricants. More recently, JAX developed a line of synthetic foodgrade compressor oils.

Petro-Canada, which markets a variety of food-grade lubricants, has been busy with R&D efforts, too. Last year, Petro-Canada launched Purity FG Synthetic Compressor Fluid, formulated with selected additives and designed against wear, oxidation, rust and corrosion while also fitting into HACCP and GMP plans.

Petro-Canada recently added an antimicrobial grease with a broader temperature range and enhanced its compressor fluid line.

In addition to new products, suppliers of food-grade lubricants also are enhancing their services for processors. At Petro-Canada, for instance, Flanagan says that the company’s experts often perform oil analyses and can provide a schematic to processors to determine which areas of a plant need food-grade lubricants and which areas may not. Training is also key; Peter, for his part, reports that JAX often sponsors special on-site “lube schools” at customers’ plants.

Meanwhile, at a time when sustainability is top of mind, many food-grade lubricants fit into discussions about eco-friendlier materials and practices, due to their natural source materials.

Flanagan recalls a recent discussion about sustainability with someone at a major poultry company. “I was describing for him the environmental efficacy of our Purity food-grade line and I was telling him most of the fluids are non-toxic and inherently biodegradable because they are food grade and made from pure white oils,” she says.

When marketing any food-grade lubricant to the meat and poultry sector, lube suppliers take into account the unique circumstances in protein plants with often harsh conditions, highly perishable raw materials and potential opportunities for cross-contamination. “The single largest challenge in a food-processing environment is water contamination due to the large amount of water that is used to keep equipment clean,’ Riebel notes.

Like their processor customers, makers of food-grade lubricants are all too aware of the high stakes involved in the production of perishable products like meat and poultry. “As opposed to 15 years ago, when you heard, ‘Why would I have to use foodgrade lubricants?’ Today the question is, ‘Why would I not use food-grade lubricants?’” Flanagan says.

Lynn Petrak is a Chicago-area freelance writer.