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Allergy prevention: the role of lubricants

30 January 2017

It is becoming more important that manufacturers in the food and beverage industry clearly display all ingredients and potential allergens. With an EU regulatory deadline fast approaching, Graham Wignall offers some guidance on lubricant specification. 

Current figures from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimate that there are approximately two million people in the UK with a food allergy and many more have food intolerances. Sufferers need to manage their condition by avoiding certain food types, which makes it the importance for them to be able to make informed decisions around the food they eat. It is generally considered that any product containing less than 10ppm of the contaminant, is safe for consumption by those with allergies but for some, even trace elements can cause an allergic reaction.
The importance is compounded as a result of the EU regulation No 1169/2011, which brings together general food labelling with nutrition labelling into a single piece of legislation. While many of the changes came into force in December 2014, nutritional declarations became mandatory from December 2016.
Most of the pre-packaged food industry already follows specific requirements in terms of product labelling. For manufacturers however, there is a tendency to adopt a ‘catch-all’ mentality stating ‘may contain gluten’ when there is minimal risk of contamination.
It is important to consider the process in which a product is made in addition to its ingredients. Where manufacturing equipment is in use, there may, for example, be a risk of contamination – either from the equipment itself or the surrounding environment. It is, therefore, crucial that industry conduct risk assessments and identify all possible threats.
Most food and beverage businesses already adhere to the BRC Global Standards for food safety, through which the guidelines call for senior management commitment and a ‘Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points’ (HACCP) programme. With greater controls and processes in place, the responsibility to adhere to the criteria falls to both the user and to the management team – raising important issues around simplicity of process.
Industry is well aware that the equipment used in the processing of food and drink requires lubrication. Just as lubricants are required to control friction and wear-and-tear in the food processing industry, they must also deliver thermal stability and water resistance, as well as limit any contamination risk.
Where contamination is a possibility, food-grade lubricants are essential… but knowing exactly when to use each one can be a challenge. HACCP for example, requires a thorough risk assessment to understand the potential risks presented in every lubrication point. 

Another challenge is understanding the various lubricant grading and categories – partly due to the labelling of three lubricants as food-grade. In fact H1 and 3H are the only lubricants that are safe for use where there is the potential risk of incidental food contact, and 3H where food contact is unavoidable – H2 and H3 however are not.

 The importance of using the correct lubricant cannot be underestimated. Just a single millilitre of contamination from an unapproved lubricant is sufficient to ban a production batch of 2,000 packaging units from the shop shelves. 

Another element to consider during the specification process is the ISO 21469 certification. While this is not new, it has only recently begun to have some traction within the market. Crucially, the standard is designed to cover the lubricant manufacturing process, rather than specific lubricant composition. It offers a further level of quality assurance to a lubricant manufacturer’s production process. It also confirms to potential customers that those who are ISO 21469-accredited can manufacture lubricants in a controlled environment, to minimise contamination risk and deliver reliable and repeatable production. Given the risk-averse nature of the food industry, this extra level of quality control can prove crucial to securing repeat business from customers.
The topic of food allergens and lubricants is a complex one, and these is currently a great deal of change occurring within the legislative landscape. So, when in doubt it is important to seek advice and recommendations and ultimately be safe in the knowledge that your chosen lubricant comes via a trusted channel and that full traceability and compliance can be assured. 

Graham Wignall is product manager – Lubricants, at ERIKS UK.

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