[Cause & Effect] Misidentification Means Money

Features - Business Strategy

November 30, 2010
Bery Pannkuk

Incorrect insect identification is always a problem and one that is usually overcome fairly quickly. After all, microscopes in the field are always iffy at best and a lot of our technicians and service supervisors do not have immediate access to technical journals and keys to assist in identification.

However, when you’re dealing with smaller beetles in the "stored product" category of insects, positive identification is an absolute necessity for control measures to be effective — or even possible.

The Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs that many of our customers have in place take up large amounts of time, training and enforcement to ensure product safety. Sometimes these programs are adhered to very strictly and sometimes not, which inevitably lead to issues and concerns later.

When you add the two together you can quickly descend into a living nightmare where snap decisions are made and protocols on both sides are thrown out the window.

CASE STUDY. The following account is a true case study. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

A customer that will be known as the XYZ Processing Plant called and reported seeing small beetles in one of the "clean areas" of the facility. This area is not ascetic or sterile, but gowns, hairnets, booties and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are required before entering. Very limited access to the area is allowed, requiring badging and key procedures that are adhered to strictly. No pesticides are allowed at any time or any place in this area.

Small beetles, measuring 1⁄16- to 1⁄8-inch in length and uniformly reddish brown in color, had been collected in various locations throughout the area. The processing space was about 14,000 square feet and it was environmentally conditioned to 62°F and 32 percent relative humidity. The room contained several process and packaging lines, along with a great deal of product and the necessary tools and equipment to handle the day-to-day work processes. The beetles were found scattered randomly throughout the area and were seen by company personnel on the packaging lines. No immediate source was discovered and the only stage of the insect that was found was that of the adult stage.

The supervisor who initially responded to the problem identified the beetles as red flour beetles, Tribolium castaneum (Herbst). A thorough inspection of the entire area, including the drop ceiling, was conducted with specimens seen and collected in various locations. Since red flour beetles can fly these inspections were quite time consuming and costly because other areas of the facility could not be ruled out. Sticky boards were placed throughout the plant and were collected on a weekly basis for examination.

The XYZ Processing Plant has extremely strict protocols for what materials were allowed in various areas throughout the facility and all personnel who needed to be trained were trained in HACCP issues.

Several weeks elapsed and subsequent inspections were all geared to finding the food source of the red flour beetle and its breeding areas. Adult insects were collected on sticky boards in virtually every area of the facility.

XYZ managers were contemplating possibly shutting down the processing and packaging lines until the problem was resolved, understanding it could cost the company thousands, if not millions, of dollars if product became contaminated by insects. Such a scenario also could be devastating to the company’s brand.

Upon further examination of the beetles caught on sticky traps, it was discovered that the insects were not red flour beetles, but foreign grain beetles, Ahasverus advena (Walti). While similar in appearance to the naked eye, upon micro examination, the small protuberances on the insect’s pronotum were easily seen, thus ensuring a positive identification. Along with foreign grain beetles, other insects and arthropods such as spiders and psocids were also found on the sticky traps.

Another tour and inspection of the facility was scheduled with product managers and upper management. When touring the area again it was noted that the product was stored on pallets. The pallets in this facility were supposed to be, according to the company’s HACCP protocols, dedicated pallets. Any incoming goods or products that were to be brought into the processing and packaging rooms were to be re-palletized with in-house pallets that were stored in appropriate areas within the plant. It turns out that the HACCP program was not being adhered to properly and these pallets were taken directly off the trucks and brought up to the clean area.

Muddy pallets, as we know, are common sources of all sorts of pests, including the four-, six- and eight-legged variety. They also serve as a reservoir for dirt, mold and other nasty things. When these pallets were brought to the dry, cool environment of the "clean room," the insects became stressed and began to migrate away from the pallets. Further examination of pallets in other parts of this large facility showed similar pest populations.

During this time it was discussed that packaging and processing of the product was vital and must continue at any cost. In the cool, dry environment the pests were doomed to death through dehydration, so long-term control was not really an issue. Short-term vacuuming and the use of more sticky traps was settled upon as the treatment strategy of choice.

Processing and packaging lines were moved to other parts of the facility, necessitating new security procedures, rescheduling employees, and other issues that cost a considerable amount of time and money. Following this pest problem, the company’s HACCP training program was re-written to include palleting options and other measures.

In closing, I will say that when dealing with smaller pests it is always advisable to ask others within your own firm or consultants for their input. Because the beetle was improperly identified initially, the cost of this incident was reported to be in excess of $2 million.

The author is a pest management specialist with Franklin Pest Solutions, Michigan City, Ind., and can be contacted at bpannkuk@giemedia.com.