Pest Control Economics: Trapping the $10,000 Rat

Throwing money at pest control is easy. Spending it effectively is the challenge in today's food and beverage production environments.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Four decades in the food industry’s pest-control trenches have left Brian Flood with a seen-it-all weariness and more than a little insight into how best to deploy resources effectively. He’s also acutely aware of how those resources sometimes are squandered.

An example of misdirected spending he finds galling is prescribed spacing of rodent traps. According to Flood, recommended placement of rodent traps every 23 ft. outside a food-processing facility is “based on World War I tactics to protect the oats fed to horses from rats.”

That standard results in scores of traps around a building’s perimeter and a harried technician routinely checking them, “going around like a madman, trying to get to zero on his traps.” Spatial analysis invariably reveals that the vast majority of rodents enter a plant at the loading dock, with a few select points of vulnerability providing ingress when the weather turns cold.

To quantify the cost benefit of conventional trap spacing, Flood analyzed spending on rodent control at one facility he analyzed and compared it to the number of pests trapped. The result: $10,000 per rodent. The analysis confirmed his faith in a more nuanced, data-driven approach to pest management and hardened his stand against “phony monitoring,” which generates a report but doesn’t focus resources where they can be effective.

“Doing something well that has no value is still a wasted effort,” summarizes Flood, editor and contributing author to “Vegetable Insect Management,” published by Meister Media Worldwide. An entomologist, he also is a research fellow in pest management for vegetables with Del Monte Foods in Roselle, Ill.

Prevention is the priority in FDA regulations implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, and that applies to pest control and other prerequisite programs relating to plant sanitation. Operations personnel are taking a hard look at current practices to determine if improvements are warranted. In many cases, the answer is yes: in Food Processing’s annual manufacturing outlook survey, 36 percent of respondents indicated their facilities are focusing on improvements in their pest control programs this year.

Required vs. effective spacing

Pest control suppliers concur with Flood’s lament about proper spacing of traps. Unfortunately, their hands sometimes are tied by the need to satisfy third-party auditors who are sticklers for standards that are absolute and outdated.

The National Pest Management Assn. addressed the issue in 2013 when it adopted a results-oriented approach. Instead of prescribed distances between traps, it recommended that the presence and frequency of traps be based on the actual number of rodents captured. No rodents, no traps.

BRC, SQF and other audit standards under the Global Food Safety Initiative have modified their guidelines accordingly, but some food safety inspection systems have stuck with the outdated approach, notes Patricia Hottel, technical director at McCloud Services, a South Elgin, Ill., pest management provider affiliated with the Copesan network. In those cases, service providers must take a rote approach or put the food facility in a position of failing the next audit.

Orkin technicians face the same conundrum, agrees Ron Harrison, director of technical services at Orkin Commercial Services, Atlanta. Pest management professionals are obliged to meet client requirements, regulatory rules and auditor standards, and those can work against “bunching up bait stations in areas where we see activity,” says Harrison.

“If you place tin cats [metal boxes that trap mice] at prescribed distances and there is nothing in them but you still have a mouse problem, that probably means they’re arriving in pallets.” Deploying limited resources where they are needed, not where they’re prescribed, makes more sense.

Hottel cites the case of the food plant where no mice were captured over a period of five years, yet 200 rodent traps continued to be placed. The next mouse snagged may well be a One Percenter compared to Flood’s rodent. “It really doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the auditor’s standard,” she shrugs. “Standards that are flexible are a win-win,” and Hottel applauds the GFSI-sanctioned schemes that provide latitude to place equipment where it can be effective.

Arbitrary requirements aside, a growing spirit of cooperation and collaboration characterizes the most effective relations between food companies and their pest control providers. Hottel applauds the food company that invited McCloud personnel to participate in a kaizen event geared to reducing consumer complaints. Those hotline calls are fertile ground for insight into insect issues, provided the individual fielding the complaint asks questions that pinpoint the time and location where the product was produced.

If the larvae are a species not found in the plant, that would suggest post-production contamination, indicating the problem is a packaging failure, not a sanitation issue. Sharing raw data with pest-control professionals may be a practice that produces the best results.

Team approach

Regardless of how effectively traps and other equipment are deployed, a service technician’s time on site is a small fraction of the hours of operation. Effective programs rely on the eyes, ears and practices of plant personnel. Both Harrison and Hottel are advocates of in-house staff training and say the most effective programs rely heavily on it.

Educating shipping and receiving personnel on the fundamentals of integrated pest management is particularly effective, says Harrison, augmented by quarterly teleconferences with managers to review results of spatial analysis and other monitoring initiatives also are valuable. Toxins and food are a bad mix, and plant personnel should be in sync with pest management’s approach of minimal use, with reliance on other tools to monitor activity. Poison should only be used when issues are detected.

Hottel concurs. Her firm’s most popular training program centers on in-plant presentations that explain to workers how they can positively impact the control program, ways to properly identify a pest, and how to avoid disruptive actions, such as unplugging a light trap. The company also organizes Pest Invasion, a management-level conference that draws health inspectors, auditors and regulators, as well as processing professionals in quality assurance and other job functions. This year’s conference will be held April 21 in Oak Brook, Ill.

Technology is providing enhanced pest-prevention tools, with digital devices gradually supplanting paper records and facilitating detailed analysis of collected data. Use of pheromones for mating disruption remains in its infancy, with bait for Indian meal moths the only commercially available disruptor available. That bait has proved very successful in controlling the major pest for stored grain, inspiring R&D work on pheromones to disrupt reproduction by cigarette beetles and warehouse beetles.

Technology has made pest remediation more effective and less toxic for humans, reflects Flood. Smart phones enrich communications much more than the CB radios ever did, and chemicals that kill insects but don’t produce human toxins make control programs safer. Monitoring devices and other tools pinpoint problem areas and generate reams of actionable data, but there are no substitutes for or shortcuts in analyses. Unless trained personnel and critical thinking is applied, food plants will keep trapping $10,000 rats.

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