With more than two-and-a-half decades of experience, Giridhar Pai, Director at Giridhar Pai Associates LLP and PECOPP Pest Control Services Pvt Ltd, is a veteran of the Indian pest management industry (PMI). He was a business head of services at PCI and established NBHC’s Pestinct business, leading it to become the third-largest Indian Pest Control Operator (PCO). He publishes the weekly PMI newsletter PCO Mentor.
In this article, he employs a fine lens to examine and call out the many common mistakes that food production units make when it comes to pest management. From blind application of solutions without eliminating obvious problems to relying only on pest management products without overhauling the food production unit in toto, he uses his decades of expertise to shine a torch on pressing pest issues.
As I started my career as a Food Safety Manager at a factory, I quickly learned the pest issues that each food company deals with regularly. So, after my brief stint in a food business, I switched to the pest management industry that allowed me to visit food industry customer sites across India for 21 years.
Food quality managers prioritise pest management in their companies’ food safety programs as pests can damage and contaminate products, resulting in customer and regulatory action if pests are found in products.
The possibility of food contamination increases when pests occur in processing and storage environments. As a food brand is responsible for its product safety from manufacture to consumption, food companies must carefully plan to avoid pests during manufacture, storage, and distribution.
I have noticed that food companies show similar patterns in approaching pest management. Though all businesses may not make all the following errors in dealing with pests, these issues are common across industry types and regions.
- Not replacing the UV fluorescent tubes in Insect Light Traps (ILTs)
The tubes of ILTs have varying lifespans that the manufacturers specify. After its life, a UV tube does not emit UV that attracts flies, and hence becomes ineffective. Therefore, a user must replace the tubes in an ILT after the specified hours and mark the tube with the installation date for easy replacement date tracking.
- Not monitoring the effectiveness of controls
Food factories rely on double doors, automatic door closers, window screens, strip curtains and other such measures to prevent pest entry and movement. However, these barriers are effective only when intact and when users don’t tamper with the device or the mechanism. For example, in hot weather, you may find that when management is not around, employees on the night shift remove window screens and unwittingly let in night-flying insects.
Similarly, my common experience with strip curtains at warehouses is that employees perceive such barriers as a hindrance to movement and tie them together, allowing for the entry of birds and flying insects. As screens on windows may wear out and develop openings that would enable pest entry, periodic inspection to check screen integrity helps identify damage in time to prevent future problems.
- Relying only on rodent traps and bait stations
As most food standards specify the use of trapping and poison baiting for rodent management, food companies rely on devices for such activity. Typically, you find traps and bait stations along walls to utilise rodent movement along walls and for rodent trapping or baiting.
However, rodents also move across the floor away from walls, and such movement requires measures beyond devices along walls to manage rodents. Traps and rodent stations as per standards may satisfy auditors but may not help in effectively managing rodents. Eliminating rodent harbourage and preventing rodent entry through proofing are equally important as trapping and baiting.
- Not documenting all pest occurrences
It is not possible to note all pests that occur at a facility because nobody may see a pest or no device may record or trap it. However, a facility benefits by having people observing pests to record all such instances, even if qualitatively.
The details of pests in traps combined with employees’ personal observations is a repository of pest occurrences in a facility over a period. Such a pest sighting log helps to ascertain the type and population of pests at different locations and helps to generate effective pest management programs.
- Not checking employee storage
I have found during customer visits that the open food in employee lockers attracts pests, leading to pest infestation and spread. One of the American food safety auditors I learned from during the early part of my career always checked our company’s employee room to determine the locker contents. In later years of my career, I have found that cockroaches commonly occur in personal storage due to the food inside.
- Creating pest harbourage through wrong storage practices
Simple practices like storing off the floor and away from the wall help one inspect for pests. Further, external storage that does not shelter pests prevents rodent infestations. On the contrary, storage that blocks access for cleaning or inspection is likely to encourage infestation and damage not noticed by anyone till it is too late. External vegetation close to a building and disorganised hardware and scrap storage are favourite spots of rodents that food companies must avoid.
- Not inspecting inventory periodically for pests
Pests invariably find their way into any product, even that in seemingly secure packaging. The older the product, the higher the chance of pests occurring in it. I have found that rodents climb up storage racks to reach cardboard boxes with goods and use the boxes for nesting and giving birth to rodent pups. Rodents might even use non-food products for nesting material and harbourage. Fast food product inventory turnarounds are a simple practice to avoid insect infestation of dry products.
- Not having a procedure for handling infested products
Dry food products invariably become infested at the manufacturing site or in the supply chain. Sometimes, packaging damage precedes infestation, whereas those processes reverse in other cases.
Food companies benefit by specifying the steps to handle infested products in storage or the supply chain. Unless you manage infestation by packing and securing the product, the pests from one container with damage can quickly spread to other good products. Fast disposal of an infested product either by destroying or some other method is important to prevent it from becoming a source of infestation.
- Not having a master cleaning schedule
A clean facility contributes to effective pest management by identifying signs of pests and denying food to pests. Every food company must have a Master Cleaning Schedule that covers all areas, and the different activities that are periodically needed to attend to them, to keep them clean.
- Relying exclusively on chemical pesticides
A common tendency among food industry professionals is to plan a pesticide treatment for each infestation. Though chemical pesticides help control infestation, they don’t prevent it and contribute to spray drift, air and water pollution, and pesticide residues in products.
Unless businesses plan to prevent pest entry and harbourage and monitor pest populations, continued use of pesticides won’t help resolve pest issues.