By | Samantha Higgins
The regulations around products that can be used in food contact, particularly products that contain silicone, are strict but fairly simple. If you’re producing a tool that will either be used in the production or in the packaging of food, the materials in that tool will either need to be certified for direct or indirect food contact. If you’re looking for silicone sheeting to be used in gaskets, seals and other gaps where lubricants could escape or be washed away.
Food Contact Risks
In industrial food preparation, there are two fundamental risks to the tools that make the food. The first risk is temperature. Gaskets and seals of tools used to make food can be subjected to huge changes in temperature; they may be warmed up to as much as 500 degrees Fahrenheit to bake some breads, or to dry food, or to kill off the pests that can hide under the husk of a rice shell or in a kernel of corn.
Silicone products can be generated in multiple forms. At the molecular level, silicone is a combination of silicon and oxygen atoms, bound with polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS polymer chains. Depending on the length of the PDMS polymer chain, silicone products can be liquids, greases, or rubber sheeting, from formed and soft foam to hard solids. While it’s still liquid, silicone can be applied to cooking tools, such as baking pans, that allow for easy release of baked goods when the pan leaves an industrial oven. Temperature tolerance is critical when putting silicone products to work in any industrial setting.
The cleaning requirements to keep commercial grade food equipment can include
- extreme heat
- high pressure water
- caustic cleansers
- extreme pressure
For example, a commercial mixer needs lubrication to protect it from wear and gear damage over time. The seals of that machine are likely made of flexible silicone sheeting, while the grease that keeps the machine lubricated is also silicone, though with a different PDMS configuration to keep the grease flowing. When that machine is washed with an antibacterial soap and highly pressurized hot water, both forms of silicone need to be able to stand up so as not to break down or wash away. Any new grease that needs to be added on a schedule will have to be pure enough in the event of incidental food contact, and this purity must be traceable.
Applications in the Field
Soft silicone can be formed and shaped into a variety of tools, including baby bottle nipples and kitchen utensils. It can also be used to make baking molds and ice cube trays. Larger silicone formed products can be used as gaskets inside the motor of your food process, your smoothie maker and your kitchen stand mixer.
Solid silicone sheet can be put to use in many different applications. One of the most consistent and useful features of silicone is that the product is stable once it’s formed. In industrial settings, such as the industrial mixer noted above, silicone feet on the base of large mixers can reduce chatter and cut back on wear and tear on the machines.
The key to getting the best product for your application is traceability. If you submit drawings to a silicone manufacturer and purchase formed seals and gaskets for a kitchen tool, you need to be able to confirm that the silicone will be stable over time. In the event of a leaching of additives from the silicone into any food product, you will need to be able to find out
- what triggered the release
- has the silicone been compromised
- is there an additional risk of release
- what is the toxicity risk
Incidental contact, particularly when it comes to food, means that some inedibility is allowed. For example, the silicone based grease that protects the gears of an industrial mixer doesn’t have to be completely edible, but it has to be non-toxic to be allowed for incidental food contact. Any products with a history of leaching will need to be traced and possibly reformulated to make sure that there is no risk of leaching in the future.
Your ability to source stable silicone products for your business needs is critical to your brand and your good name. Depending on the additives and the application, you may be limited from selling around the globe if your silicone supplier can’t provide the proper traceability, and the regulations can include fines and other legal risks. To protect your reputation, buy from producers that are on the cutting edge of regulatory certainty.