Pest Control / Food Safety

Pest Management Suffers when All Responsibilities and Involvement Are Outsourced

While pest-control companies welcome full-service contracts with food plants, involvement of plant personnel is essential if outcomes are to be optimized.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

The devil is in the details of modern food & beverage production, and plant managers have a devilish time reconciling the details of prerequisite programs with the central mission of meeting production schedules.

That helps explain the preference to outsource pest control responsibilities. In Food Processing’s recent Manufacturing Trends Survey, 60.7 percent of industry professionals indicated pest-control responsibilities were outsourced at their facilities, easily the most frequently divested responsibility. Corporations with leading brands and deep resources may prefer in-house specialists in order to maintain optimal control and accountability, but most processors prefer that pest management be somebody else’s headache.

That’s good news for local, regional and national pest management firms, which also have benefited from growing application of risk-based food safety standards, such as certifications like SQF and BRC under the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and beefed-up regulatory requirements under the Food Safety Modernization Act. Unlike the prescriptive approach of proprietary audits, the results-oriented programs place a heavy emphasis on documenting the pest-prevention plan, the results achieved and the changes made when problems surface.

To ease the record-keeping burden, pest control vendors are migrating to digital documentation that can be accessed with a web browser to deliver the documentation auditors and inspectors require. The downside, entomologists and technicians caution, is the hands-off attitude outsourcing can foster. Consequently, more food companies are requesting in-house training and education to keep operators and other staffers involved.

“In-house training is an area where we have seen more requests,” says Patricia Hottel, technical director at McCloud Services, South Elgin, Ill. Some GFSI programs require staff training, and an increasing number of food companies want to raise staff awareness of the health hazards and brand protection concerns of infestation. In-house training and webinars can promote that kind of engagement, Hottel says.

“Sometimes employees are the problem,” adds Liz Johnson, marketing director at Copesan Services Inc., Menomonee Falls, Wis. Carelessly discarded lunch leftovers and half-eaten snacks can defeat control efforts by attracting insects and rodents. Awareness of the objectives and rationales behind a prevention program is a basic need.

Training select workers to check traps and conduct visual surveillance adds timeliness to records. “The more they are engaged and understand what to look for, the better,” Johnson says.

A number of regional pest companies, including McCloud Services, are affiliated with Copesan, giving food companies with multiple U.S. plants one-stop sourcing and invoicing. UK-based Rentokil has stitched together a similar nationwide network, building its federation through acquisitions. The most recent addition was October’s purchase of Steritech, which bolsters Rentokil’s service reach in the Southeast.

To keep pace, local and regional pest service firms formed the Food Protection Alliance. Sixteen pest-management companies are members of the consortium, which provides centralized invoicing and other services important to national accounts. FPA members may share best practices, but services are customized to the plants and reflect site-specific needs.

Kalah Schmitz, FPA’s national executive director, describes her members’ relationships with food clients as a partnership. “We still conduct thorough inspection when we service,” she wrote in an e-mail, “but having an ‘employee sighting program’ can allow us insight on potential problems before they become serious. Heightened communication and monitoring can lead to minimal control needed.”

Cross-functional disfunction

Staff awareness and partnership rhetoric is all well and good, but gaps often occur in the overlap between pest control, plant maintenance and sanitation programs. A service technician can flag wall gaps where insects and rodents can enter or messy storage areas with spilled food, but unless plant personnel follow up, the problem persists.

“It’s easy to make recommendations,” muses Jerry Heath, product manager at Lenexa, Kan.-based Industrial Fumigant Co., but in-house professionals must cope with capital limitations and other priorities when juggling work orders. Nonetheless, “that element is going to change,” he predicts, thanks in part to more stringent audits and inspections.

About three out of five food facilities serviced by Steritech are participating in one of the GFSI food-safety programs, and that is spurring more requests for the Charlotte, N.C.-based firm’s AuditReady program, according to Kristopher Middleton, program manager. Failure to address problems and assess the effectiveness of the remedy is a red flag to GFSI auditors. That in turn is improving follow through by plant personnel when a pest technician notes a problem.

Some GFSI standards are very specific in their pest control requirements while others simply allude to “an adequate pest program,” notes Zia Siddiqi, director-quality systems at Orkin LLC, Atlanta. For example, SQF specifies awareness and training on bait stations and chemical use, while BRC simply requires understanding of “the signs of pest activity and … the need to report any evidence of pest activity.” But communication and follow-up between an outside vendor and operational departments can’t be mandated by a standard and may require change in the company culture.

Whether they opt for partial assistance or a full-blown integrated pest management (IPM) program, plant managers and quality assurance directors usually can tap pest specialists for traps, pesticides and equipment for in-house programs.

All light traps are not created equal, McCloud’s Hottel points out. Durability, serviceability and support when issues arise vary from supplier to supplier. Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of specific traps is fundamental to a pest specialist’s job.

One vendor who believes its light trap options are best in class is Gardner Manufacturing Inc., a Horicon, Wis., firm that evolved from a farm-implement fabrication shop in the 1920s to a specialist in flying insect control equipment. Gardner helped pioneer development of “bug zappers” in the 1930s and now provides a wide range of light traps.

Food & beverage plants are the biggest users of Gardner’s devices, according to Jason Palleria, a sales representative, though most orders are placed by pest control firms, reflecting the prevalence of service outsourcing. Feedback from end users drives product development. Demand for traps that are easier to service and don’t result in negative side effects has produced “designs that result in much more effective units,” says Palleria. An example is the inclusion of a grid on glue boards to facilitate analysis of the number and types of insects trapped.

Flying insects have to be lured before they can be zapped, and Gardner’s traps are “evolving with the lighting industry,” he continues. Fixtures migrated from T12 fluorescents to T8 bulbs. The new frontier is LED, and Gardner is conducting extensive research using LED bulbs. Most insects are attracted to light in the 340-420 nanometer spectrum, essentially UV light. Finding an LED bulb that matches that ban “would revolutionize the trap,” but to date a bulb emitting light in that spectrum has not been found, Palleria says.

Baby, it’s warm outside

All 10 of the warmest years in recorded history have occurred in the past 17 years. One upshot is “an extended pest season,” McCloud’s Hottel observes. “Mice and rats and birds benefit from a longer season,” and flying insects that used to become dormant in early autumn now remain airborne through November and beyond.

The roof rat and other species are expanding their geographic footprints. Production facilities with no prior experience combating these vermin are scrambling to erect defenses when severe weather sets in and the new invaders seek shelter. “The house mouse is starting to pop up more,” notes Steritech’s Middleton.

“The El Niño effect is good for our business,” adds Orkin’s Siddiqi. “It’s causing early emergence of pests we usually don’t see until March or April.” At the same time, concern over the collapse of honey bee populations and other factors is leaving pest professionals with fewer pesticides to counter attack.

More eco-friendly insect sprays that don’t require EPA approval are available, although data on their efficacy is absent, he points out. Regardless of toxicity, any spray “might just be putting a band-aid on the problem,” argues Middleton. Root cause analysis is the appropriate response, and sensors and communication technology are helping in that regard.

Several service bureaus are conducting field tests of rodent traps with occupancy sensors. Siddiqi recalls the Zurich, Switzerland, bakery he visited in 2014, where as many as 220 traps with remote sensors and wireless transmitters were deployed. Copesan is distributing iPads to assist in data collection, and McCloud is leveraging iPhones and iPads to update electronic pest logs when a McCloud technician is not on site.

Weekly foggings and toxic poisons are practices of the past. Technology helps plug gaps left by their discontinued use, but human intelligence and collaboration are the hallmarks of effective IPM. Location, food types and past experience need to be considered when formulating a game plan, but conditions are never static. Collaboration between the service vendor and the people in the plant is the key to effective pest control.