Technology Reshapes Pest Control

Electronic hardware and better data management is liberating service technicians to devise more effective remediation strategies by freeing them from mundane chores.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Extermination of rodents, insects and other pests drawn to food and beverage facilities seems like a low-tech exercise. But make no mistake: Technology more closely associated with NASA than pest remediation is beginning to reshape the way these prerequisite programs are executed.

Technology’s impact already is being felt, but bigger changes are coming, pest control professionals agree. “Better monitoring through electronics was being talked about five or six years ago, but the sensors and other hardware were too cumbersome and expensive,” notes Ron Harrison, director of technical services at Orkin Commercial Services in Atlanta. “More affordable electronics and the ability to store data in the cloud is driving down costs and leading to greater acceptance of technology.”

Steritech data management systems

Better data management systems allow service technicians to spend more time communicating with food-plant managers and less time in bureaucratic activities like logging activity levels at every pest trap or monitoring station. Photo: Steritech

The biggest changes are still five years out, agree Harrison and Judy Black, vice president-technical services for Charlotte, N.C.-based Steritech.

“Software improvement is an area where there is a lot of development in putting trend data in a readable and understandable format,” says Black. “Information technology is going allow us to digitize the traditional (pest-control) log book. Five to 10 years from now, I’m not sure if there will be anything on paper.”

An attitude change by auditors and regulators will be necessary before paper documents will cease to be, but that is slowly happening. The change can’t happen fast enough, Black believes: Her organization tracks 37 different audit schemes for food-plant pest control, and meeting the specific requirements and subtle differences between each of them can turn service technicians into bureaucratic functionaries and distract them from designing a program that meets the specific needs of a facility.

McCloud Services, South Elgin, Ill., a member of the Copesan network of industrial pest management providers, recently armed its technicians with tablet computers that put all documentation relating to a food company at the technician’s fingertips, replacing a hybrid electronic/paper-based system, according to Patricia Hottel, technical manager. Now the firm is issuing iPads to select clients to give them immediate access to trending and tracking information about their facilities. Facility maps that used to reside only in a binder can now be overlaid with data pinpointing hot spots in the plant and the degree of activity at each one.

Rodent traps should be monitored daily, but service technicians only visit weekly, at best. Heat sensors could wirelessly relay capture data in real-time, with battery-power monitors providing assurance that the trap itself is still functioning, Orkin’s Harrison points out. As hardware reliability increases and cost comes down, pest professionals will be able to precisely monitor and pinpoint problem areas. “It will introduce a scientific, rather than a robotic, approach to decision making,” he predicts.

Client assistance alerts

Data accessibility is important in every business and every function, and software programs for pest management have grown in robustness and functionality over recent decades, just as they have in other areas. Service providers derive most of the value from those programs, but adding value for clients is a trend that should improve sanitation and maintenance practices in food facilities.

An example is the capability of email alerts sent by In-Quiz-It Software’s U-Trap-It software program. When breeches such as food spills or broken screens are noted by service technicians, an email to the sanitation supervisor or maintenance manager can be automatically generated. If corrective action is not taken by the next visit, follow-up emails are sent to people further up in the chain of command, according to Bruce Achterman, director-marketing & sales at the DeSoto, Texas-based firm.

The latest version of the 21-year-old firm’s industrial software is geared more toward in-house use than earlier iterations, Achterman adds, to cater to the desires of food companies with multiple plant locations who want to own the data, regardless of who actually performs the pest-control service.

Rat

Adorable, yes, but rodents and food production don’t mix. Some pest-control specialists report great success with soft baits that outperform conventional block bait in attracting and eradicating rodents. Photo: Rentokil

Charles Dixon was an early adopter of In-Quiz-It’s program. His firm, Dixon Pest Services, Thomasville, Ga., is beginning to implement the email module. “Once you determine the plant’s threshold levels (for tolerable pest activity), you can set that up to start nagging (the appropriate manager) with emails,” he says.

When it comes to rodents, zero tolerance is the rule, and most plants opt for rodenticide to eliminate them. However, the forensics of pest control are best served with traps, and there’s a movement toward greater use of them.

“There’s some reluctance because one size trap won’t control both rats and mice,” allows McCloud’s Hottel, but they allow a more targeted approach. Speaking of her firm’s experience, she adds, “It’s been eye-opening to us to know what species are being trapped around the facility.”

More humane traps are starting to come into the market, says Steritech’s Black, though devices currently available lack the ruggedness necessary for use in an industrial setting. When rodenticides are necessary, the trend is away from block bait and toward soft bait, which allows the odor of the food to waft over an area to attract hungry pests. “Soft baits are very effective, in my experience,” she says, though some audit standards still require conventional block bait.

Pheromones are used extensively in stored-grain and other bulk environments, and they are valuable monitoring tools in food plants, says Harrison of Orkin.

They also hold promise for mating disruption, but more research and development is needed.

To date, the Indian meal moth is the only processing facility pest that can be managed with a mating disruptor, he says. Researchers with universities, USDA and chemical companies continue to search for effective mating disruptors for flour beetles, cigar beetles and other nuisance pests found in food plants.

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