Food companies, like people in general, don’t always get the services they pay for, but they can be certain they won’t get services they didn’t pay for.
This truism certainly applies to pest control, the industry’s most frequently outsourced service. More than seven out of 10 food professionals who participated in Food Processing’s 17th annual Manufacturing Outlook Survey indicated their plants rely on service vendors for pest control, a ratio that may understate the frequency of outsourcing.
As procurement officers bargain harder for higher service levels and lower costs, the stage may be set for pest management programs that fall short of what production facilities and warehouses need, some pest specialists say.
The same dilemma exists with sanitation, landscaping services and any other outsourced services. While there are no easy solutions, the fundamental need is engagement at the plant and warehouse level and an understanding of the inter-relationship of those services with operational functions.
Consider landscaping. An attractive exterior creates a positive first impression with prospective customers and other visitors and often is encouraged or even required by local authorities. However, bushes and trees that encroach on the building exterior provide a roost for birds and a landing spot for other critters.
Likewise, ivy and small pebbles are potential homes and breeding grounds for rodents and pests. The pest-control technician working with a tight schedule may not assess the effects of new plantings. If facility managers don’t review plans for exterior improvements with an eye toward the pest impact, problems can result.
A small body of water may evoke thoughts of Walden Pond, but it also provides one of life’s essentials. If it attracts Canadian geese and other avians, droppings that could be tracked into the facility are inevitable. “A pond may be nice, but could it be reduced to a fountain?” asks Chelle Hartzer, technical services manager for Orkin Commercial Services (www.orkin/commercial.com), Atlanta.
Infrastructure decisions can make it more likely that pests will be drawn to a food facility. Patricia Hottel, technical director at McCloud Services (mccloudservices.com), South Elgin, Ill., notes that mercury vapor in the 450-550nm range of light is 112 times more attractive than sodium vapor in the 575-600nm spectrum. The former is described as blue, while the higher wave length is considered yellow.
Increasingly, lighting upgrades involve LED, which shrinks the payback time due to vastly superior energy efficiency. LED diodes typically are in the blue spectrum, but yellow light can be specified for exterior illumination, she points out. Unless it is specified, however, exterior lighting may serve as pest magnets.
Rodents have sharp senses of smell, as do some insects—odor sensors in antennae serve as olfactory nerves. “Odor plumes” from dumpsters draw them to the building, says Hottel.
Adds Angela Tucker, manager-technical services at Memphis-based Terminix International Co. (www.terminix.com), “Decomposing organic material we call ‘gunk’ collects in the corners of dumpsters and is a feed source for the larvae of flies and yellow jackets.” Routinely applying cleaning agents that break down gunk helps minimize problems.
Exhaust vents from the plant itself may attract pests higher on the evolutionary ladder. Industrial odor control is more challenging, but scientists at OMI Industries in suburban Chicago believe they can resolve those issues with a plant-based extract.
Pests weren’t the issue for Activ International, a food ingredient supplier with a production facility in Middlesex, N.J. Goaded by odor complaints from a neighboring business, county officials fined the facility a total of $45,000. Application of the OMI compound resolved the problem.
Plant personnel are taking a more active role in pest control, suggests Jerry Heath, product manager and staff entomologist at IFC (www.indfumco.com) in Lenexa, Kan. See-no-evil tendencies of the past are giving way to a willingness to investigate issues that crop up. One example: His office rarely received requests to identify insect specimens in the past. Now, “we get them daily. (Plant personnel) want to know what it is.”
Remote monitoring of pest traps is the technology that incites the most enthusiasm among entomologists and other pest-management professionals. Most major vendors have field tested traps equipped with cellphone transmitters or other technology to provide alerts when an animal is in the trap.
False positives are a problem, “though in a year or two, those monitoring systems will be reliable and easy to use,” Tucker believes. One vendor she is working with expects to extend the concept to insect traps. Unlike sensors that rely on sampling to detect pests in stored grain silos, these traps would transmit images for positive identification of the invaders.
Cost will be the biggest barrier to initial use, Hartzer predicts. “New technology tends to be expensive,” she allows, “but remote monitoring expands the opportunities for inspections because you know that 95 percent of the traps don’t have a rodent in them,” freeing the technician’s time to focus on other areas.
Tucker isn’t so sure. Technicians still will have to check traps to make sure bait is available, regardless if anything is in the trap. Still, she sees value in the technology.
McCloud’s field testing demonstrated that false positives and other issues are surmountable. In January, the company inaugurated full-time deployment at a food site, Hottel reports. Motion detectors in a foot pad trigger an alert transmitted to a hub, which then relays the finding to plant personnel.
Deductive reasoning, not technology, is needed to resolve some issues. Hottel recalls a situation where fungus gnats were a recurring problem at a food-packaging warehouse. Those pests usually are associated with greenhouses. Repeated chemical treatments failed to eradicate them.
Documentation of trouble spots in the building pinpointed a building corner near loading docks. Closer examination revealed holes in the roof membrane, where moisture reduced the wood beneath it to soil-like matter. Repair and treatment with a borate-based chemical resulted in a long-term fix.
Mundane decisions like color choice for window trim impact pest-exclusion efforts. Black trim and beige brick provides a contrast that can draw pests. Peonies next to a doorway may be attractive, but they guarantee ants will go marching in.
Openings as small as one-sixteenth inch are enough to allow German cockroaches to enter a building; a rat can squeeze through a half-inch hole. Gaps larger than that are not unusual, particularly along expansion joints around support columns.
By and large, plant maintenance workers do a good job of sealing those openings, often with expandable foam. Unfortunately, mice and rats living under the building slab can easily chew through the foam. To prevent them from gaining interior access, pest professionals recommend stainless-steel mesh be placed around the foam.
Cafeterias, locker rooms and other employee welfare areas must be separated from processing areas. As a best practice, pest professionals recommend corridors or other physical spaces between them. “The cafeteria is a hot spot,” says Richard Kammerling, founder of RK Chemicals (www.rkchemical.com) in Huntington Station, N.Y.
Need vs. price paid
Section 111.15 of Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations governing food production addresses the need to avoid attracting, harboring or providing a breeding place for pests. Regarding pest control, it states, “You must not allow animals or pests in any area of your physical plant,” a requirement that some interpret as zero tolerance.
As a practical matter, that is unrealistic. “Zero is an objective,” allows Alfred St. Cyr, a Tacoma, Wash., consultant who works with AIB International and other organizations. Realistically, “a little is OK, a lot is not.”
However, failure to document prevention, exclusion and suppression efforts is a prescription for legal problems. “If nothing is logged in and there’s no story in the documentation of trends and root causes, you’re exposed in litigation,” cautions St. Cyr. He sometimes serves as an expert witness for customers who sue food companies for insect-control negligence. Poor reporting exposes manufacturers to costly settlements.
Federal regulations address the plant’s exterior and trash disposal practices and link pest control to sanitation supervisors. A better idea, Terminix’s Tucker suggests, is direct communication between the service technician and the food safety manager at the plant. That individual has the stature to ensure that the technician’s findings and recommendations will be relayed to and acted upon by the appropriate plant personnel.
Pest control is done on the local level, but service contracting increasingly is done at a corporate level. Pest professionals lament the lowest-bid vendor selection that results. “Purchasing people are looking for the cheapest price and view the services as being all the same,” Kammerling observes. If contract fulfillment requires six hours on site but the technician’s schedule only allows four, something has to give.
St. Cyr seconds his point, adding that the trust and relationship-building between technicians and plant managers are fraying. “Turnover’s unbelievable among pest technicians,” he says. “Conditions aren’t the best when you get down in the trenches.” Top-notch entomologists and other experts staff the corporate offices of leading pest-control companies, but churn in the trenches results in poor execution.
IFC’s Heath believes large food companies recognize the disconnect, and the best are addressing it. He cites a recent meeting with a corporate sanitarian who included all the plant sanitarians. “It was so gratifying to hear from the plant sanitarians and the strong relationships they had with the local technician,” Heath recalls. “Increasingly, corporate sanitarians want dashboard reports of what is going on at their plants nationally.” In some instances, local needs get passed up the chain of command and “the impossible dream of getting funding reaches the right eyes.”
Production drives plant operations, and pest control is only one of many support functions. However, it is impacted by many other aspects of operations. Instead of making the pest technician the nexus of all aspects of control, awareness of how decisions involving landscaping, lighting and other infrastructure can result in a robust defense.