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What Does Food Grade Mean and Why is it Important?

Last Updated: July 2, 2019
Posted by: Matt Krysiak in Safety

For both food producers and food equipment manufacturers, it’s crucial to deliver products that have followed the processes that guarantee safety in terms of production as well as consumption. While the two camps have their own unique sets of mandated regulations to follow that are equally distinct and that, at times, intersect, they both follow a shared goal: to provide food grade products and/or provide the processes that develop them.

A Definition of Food Grade

Food grade holds two separate definitions:

  1. It is a material that is safe for human consumption.
  2. It is a material that is suitable to come into direct contact with food products.

Depending upon whom you ask and in which sector they operate, food grade can mean different things. For instance, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), has its own set of complex regulatory strata and processes that determine whether every additive in a specific food is safe for human consumption. The agency’s procedure includes a long list of steps to take to guarantee food grade status, starting with the identification of the substance, a breakdown of the properties and purity standards for each substance, and the limitations on conditions of use.

On the other end of the spectrum is food grade material, such as food-grade stainless steel, which has been deemed suitable to come in direct contact with food products. This implies that the surfaces cannot contain any toxic components; they must also be designed so that the end user can follow these cardinal rules:

  • The material is used within the recommended safe temperature range.
  • The material is safe for the type of food that it is in contact with.
  • The material’s integrity will not falter during regular sanitation and cleaning processes.

How to be Food Grade-Compliant What Does Food Grade Mean?

While agencies such as the FDA don’t give out ‘food grade’ certifications, food grade compliance is an all-encompassing process that requires all food components – and the surfaces with which the components make contact – to contain materials that are safe for human consumption.

To illustrate this, let’s look at an article published to CSI’s blog entitled “What Does ‘Food Grade’ Mean?”, written by process engineer, Trent Bullock. Bullock presents the example of a silicone o-ring which is manufactured to meet all FDA-stipulated food grade standards. He writes: “…if a food grade silicone o-ring is exposed to hot or acidic food products, no harmful chemicals can leach out of the silicone into that product. If a tiny amount of food grade lubricant or grease makes its way to a product-contact portion of a piece of equipment, it will not cause harm to the end user.”

Conversely, if a silicone o-ring is not manufactured in accordance with FDA food grade standards, toxic material can be emitted, a mistake which might expose the consumer to potentially dangerous health hazards.

Why the Food Grade Distinction is Important

As mentioned, when there is a disconnect in a supply chain when it comes to food grade standards, the food manufacturer can inadvertently put consumers at risk. This is something that can easily fall by the wayside, especially when it comes to food equipment manufacturers who build using heavy materials.

While it may be simpler or even tempting to integrate cheaper, non-food grade components into the final design of a piece of food equipment, even the most seemingly insignificant part could be the thing that harms the consumer or gets the manufacturer into trouble for non-compliance. This is why all food manufacturers and food equipment manufacturers alike must only innovate based on the stipulated sanitary and hygienic design designations. (For an in-depth look into this, read our definitive guide on the topic.)

The Differences Between Food Grade and Food Safe

Finally, food service establishments, manufacturers, and equipment manufacturers must be able to distinguish ‘food grade’ from ‘food safe.’ Though it’s fairly common to hear these two terms used interchangeably, the concepts – and corresponding regulations – behind them are actually quite distinct.

As explained, ‘food grade’ demands that all food components, as well as the surfaces and tools that interact with them during the manufacturing/assembly process, are safe for human consumption and/or exposure. On the other hand, ‘food safe’ refers to the material which comes into contact with the food having no dangerous effect on the consumer.

What makes these two concepts different is that ‘food grade’ contains the detail that temperature or environment will not impact the integrity of the material, but that is not necessarily true for ‘food safe’ materials. For example, a plastic container may be ‘food safe,’ but it doesn’t meet the criteria for ‘food grade’ status because it can’t withstand certain high temperatures.

Clearly, the parties involved in the manufacturing of food – and the materials that come into contact with it – are all equally responsible for every component of the products. Without these guidelines in place, consumers are exposed to unnecessary risks.

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