Pest Control

Birth Control Meets Pest Control in Food and Beverage Plants

FSMA compliance is front and center, and pest control specialists are thinking outside the box to keep rodents, birds and insects in check.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

The harbor in Hamilton, Ontario, links the city to Lake Ontario and to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the world. It’s a great transport option for food commodities like sugar.

Sugar in supersacks and in bulk arrive on one Hamilton pier, where end loaders convey 25,000 tons a year to a warehouse and deposit it on the floor in mounds topping 6 ft. in height. The raw sugar will later be pasteurized and filtered to 99.5 percent purity before being converted to liquid sugar, primarily for use in carbonated soft drinks.

The facility is BRC certified, proof that a pest control program is in place. But shoes stick to the floor due to sugar residue, and it’s easy to imagine a wharf rat or two cavorting on the sugar heaps when no one is around.

Virtually every food and beverage plant is unique, in terms of products manufactured, physical layout, surrounding environment and the specific challenges it faces in warding off pests drawn to an abundant food supply. Whether it’s phorid flies emerging from a drain, flour beetles looking for a bakery or rats calling to borrow a cup of sugar, every facility must deal with a pest of particular concern.

Roof spikes and netting are the go-to defenses against birds, with traps and misting machines that spritz the outside air with bird repellants providing back-up options. But “It’s amazing how often the solution is just closing the dock door,” observes Cameron Riddell, president of Bird Barrier (, a Carson, Calif., distributor of an assortment of bird and rodent control products. That’s not always possible, however, and when all else fails, the remaining solution might be avian birth control.

In 1998, scientists at USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., began developing an oral contraceptive to interrupt egg production by Canada geese. The contraceptive’s active ingredient, nicarbazin, was approved by EPA as a general use pesticide for pigeons and brought to market as OvoControl by Innolytics LLC. The bad news is that it is not approved for use with gulls, sparrows and other nuisance birds; the good news is that purchasers need not be licensed to buy it.

When pigeons or other birds are a problem, facility managers want immediate solutions. Disrupting reproduction is a longer-term answer, but in combination with an immediate trapping program, it can result in dramatic reductions in the overall bird population. “Where nothing else has worked, OvoControl fits in,” says Riddell.

In August, EPA registration of a contraceptive for rats was granted. The concept is the same: provide a feed source laced with 4-vinylciclohexene diepoxide to cause egg loss in females and interrupt sperm production in males. Trials in subway tunnels in New York and Chicago resulted in significant reductions in rat populations over time.

Experiments involving injectable contraceptives for rats have a long history, but this solution is the first self-administered birth control, notes Ali Applin, vice president-business development at Senestech Inc. (, the Flagstaff, Ariz., firm bringing the contraceptive to market. State registrations now are being secured, with North Carolina and Georgia the first to allow its sale.

As with rodenticide, continuous feeding is required, says Applin; otherwise, females regain fertility in 60 days. The problem with poisoning, be it pigeons or rats, is that wild creatures tend to migrate into an area when the local population declines. “Often there is a huge rebound after the initial knockdown of rats,” she points out. “The problem isn’t the killing, the problem is the reproduction.”

The concept is receiving a receptive audience among some pest management professionals. Ron Harrison, an entomologist with Orkin Commercial Services (www.orkin/, Atlanta, cites the obvious appeal to champions of humane treatment of animals. A combination of perimeter baiting to hold down populations to a manageable level and interior trapping of rodents attempting to enter a facility could be an effective one-two punch.

His peer at Terminix International Co. ( concurs. “Any advancement in controlling a rodent population is welcome,” says Paul Curtis, manager-technical services at the Memphis-based service provider. Combined with traps that produce immediate results, contraceptives would fit with a long-term control strategy, he says.

Train and react

A more immediate concern for Harrison, Curtis and their counterparts at other pest-control firms is ensuring that clients and service technicians are on the same compliance page for the preventive controls requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act, as they pertain to prerequisite programs such as pest control. FSMA enforcement for large food companies began Sept. 1, with smaller manufacturers facing a September 2017 compliance deadline.

FSMA’s emphasis on prevention is consistent with the basis of integrated pest management (IPM), notes Michelle Hartzer, product manager-technical services for Industrial Fumigant Co. ( in Lenexa, Kan. IPM and tougher food-safety standards like SQF, BRC and others under the Global Food Safety Initiative umbrella have elevated many food plants “above and beyond what FSMA requires,” she believes.

But processors have to back that up with comprehensive staff training and documentation, including a written pest-management plan and records of both routine activities and responses when insects, rodents and other pests are found in a facility.

“We’re really stressing the paperwork part of it and getting at the root cause when pests are found,” says Hartzer. She also advises companies to involve everyone in the organization in the prevention effort. “It’s not just one person’s job or one group’s job; it’s everyone’s job,” she stresses — sanitation, maintenance, even management, which must provide the necessary resources.

Patricia Hottel, technical director at McCloud Services (, South Elgin, Ill., echoes the point. Staff training should go beyond awareness to identifying the cause. The type of pest also is important, Hottel adds. FDA has established three forensic categories to prioritize responses. Category I is termed vectors and includes pests that are known carriers of food pathogens. Examples are the house fly, oriental cockroach, pharaoh ant and house mouse.

Even an entomologist would be hard-pressed to identify every insect species corralled in a light trap, but activity reports should include a body count and likely species, along with the response. “You need to know exactly what goes on in those traps and be able to identify trends,” Hottel stresses.

Pest specialists are of two minds when it comes to FSMA tolerance for any pest activity in the plant. Some suggest there will be zero tolerance for vectors; others believe a manufacturer can establish threshold levels that trigger different responses. For example, if a pest presence likely to occur exceeds the threshold by 20 percent, fogging is done; if it exceeds 50 percent, fumigation is performed.

The cure could be worse than the disease if toxic chemicals are involved, points out Terminix’s Curtis. He suggests a hierarchy of responses that begins with benign actions. An example is crystallizing pests with a blast of carbon dioxide.

His firm has developed a portable device that relies on a cylinder filled with CO2 in liquid form and a wand that dispenses it in affected areas. The CO2 warms to -110° F when it enters the atmosphere. The resulting snow causes rupturing of cell walls in insects and larvae.

Service technicians traditionally presented a written report to the contact person at a food plant and left it up to the client to correct any problem areas. That no longer will be the case. IPM providers are moving beyond written reports to list servers to alert a hierarchy of plant personnel when corrective actions aren’t taken.

“We’re moving very aggressively into electronics,” says Orkin’s Harrison, director-technical services. “We used to discuss the protocol with the contact person and put it back on them. Now we can’t stop there.”

Sanitary transport of food is one of FSMA’s fundamental rules, and while most of the onus is on shippers, plant personnel also have responsibilities. “The guy who drives the forklift has to be trained to identify and record any problems he sees in a delivery trucks,” suggests Curtis.

“The facility is only one part of FSMA,” Harrison concurs, adding that materials moving into a plant can also convey pests. That underscores the fluid nature of the food production environment, where a pest-free plant is constantly challenged by the next trailer pulling into the receiving dock or the next barge coming into the harbor, providing passage to another family of Norwegian rats.