Controlling the Pest Problem At Food and Beverage Manufacturing Plants

A food illness outbreak may not shut down a plant, but woe to the processor who fails to maintain a rigorous pest control program.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Rentokil infrared cameras

Infrared cameras can expose infestations that are invisible to the naked eye. As technology costs decline, pest management professionals are refining their ability to keep intruders out of food-processing areas. Photo: Rentokil Initial

Go big or go home is an American mantra, and nobody goes bigger than the U.S. of A. when it comes to pest control.

Pest control is a $14.4 billion global business, estimates U.K.-based Rentokil Initial plc, and half of that spending occurs in North America. A big chunk supports food and beverage pest programs. Little wonder, then, that acquisition-fueled growth in recent years vaulted the firm’s Rentokil North America subsidiary into the No. 3 position among pest control service providers, once Rentokil stitched together a national network from its Reading, Pa., beachhead.

Eliminating termites in homes or bedbugs from hotels differs from the specialized skills and knowledge needed to prevent pests from feasting in a food plant. While all national pest control companies extend their services to the food industry, they compete with thousands of specialists in helping the 79,844 registered U.S. food-handling facilities establish and maintain programs.

Speaking of the majors, Richard Kammerling, founder of RK Pest Management Services, Huntington Station, N.Y., says, “They may be great pest control contractors, but does all the necessary information filter down to the technicians? You can’t train them if they first don’t have knowledge about the specific problems a facility faces and the habits and life cycles of the pests they’re dealing with.”

Flora or fauna, once an organism’s life ends, it becomes food for other creatures. Be it livestock, grain, fruit or vegetable, the materials of food production are at risk until they are processed and packaged. Materials at rest are targets, and pest control programs are the sentries that keep lower life forms at bay.

The largest food companies have the resources to shoulder that protection task in-house, and the smallest firms do it out of financial necessity, but most food processors today rely on outside experts to either guide their pest control efforts or manage an integrated pest management (IPM) program, experts say. Pest control is a prerequisite program, one of the building blocks of HACCP and the prevention-oriented approach to food safety mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

Referring to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, James Sargent, director of technical support for Copesan Services Inc., Menomonee Falls, Wis., points out, “It was against the law in 1938 to have pests in the processing area. Now that is being expanded to the whole plant, including areas such as the machine shop.”

Gauging FSMA’s impact on food facilities’ pest programs requires conjecture, although the adoption of stricter third-party food safety standards already has had a positive effect. Instead of prescribing the spacing of rodent traps near doors and along the perimeter of buildings, independent auditors are granting plant operators discretion to target hot spots and reduce placements where traps aren’t really needed.

“Auditors used to come to plants with a tape measure, deducting points if there weren’t traps every 20 feet,” says Zia Siddiqi, director of quality systems at Orkin Commercial Services in Atlanta. “Those days are gone.”

To bring some consistency to audits, the National Pest Management Assn. (NPMA) convened a meeting of Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI)-sanctioned standards organizations. BRC has adopted the association’s pest management standards, and SQF and other standards-owners are considering similar harmonization. In its 2013 standards revision, NPMA notes the need for “a more results-oriented approach” to pest control based on trends, inspection observations and the expertise of specialists.

“Most pest control programs will comply with FSMA,” believes Patricia Hottel, technical manager at McCloud Services, South Elgin, Ill. -- although pet food manufacturers and animal feed producers may struggle, and tobacco companies, which previously were not under FDA jurisdiction, are approaching FSMA requirements with some trepidation.

About one-third of food plants currently are certified under one of the GFSI standards, according to Food Processing’s 2014 Manufacturing Survey, and Hottel says those operations are committed to continuous improvement. Simply controlling and killing pests is not enough: An effective program includes forensics work to determine how pests gained access in the first place.

“I don’t perceive FSMA having a direct impact on pest management,” seconds Jerry Heath, product manager at Industrial Fumigant Co., Lenexa, Kan. “But the impact of the GFSI standards has been very significant. That’s where the specialized documentation and monitoring techniques have emerged.” Individuals responsible for checking traps must be able to correctly identify insect species, track trending information and capture other data. “Everything depends on monitoring and trending,” he adds.

Hide the roaches

Besides an emphasis on prevention and corrective actions, FSMA gives FDA expanded power to inspect processing facilities and order a shutdown if inspectors uncover serious deficiencies. A demonstration of that new power was provided in fall 2012, when FDA suspended the facility registration of peanut processor Sunland Inc. in Portales, N.M., after the plant was linked to a salmonella outbreak.

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