Big box retailers and large food manufacturers are shining a spotlight on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies as they strive to become green. With motives running the gamut from image-building to environmental stewardship to increased effectiveness, these industry leaders are taking a scientific approach to pest management, looking for more efficient, sustainable means of controlling pests while maintaining the highest levels of food safety.
A research study that’s been under way for several years suggests that these goals are attainable. Led by Dr. Bobby Corrigan, president of RMC Pest Management Consulting, Richmond, Ind., the study is evaluating traditional rodent management procedures vs. new-generation IPM procedures in big box and other large commercial accounts.
"Not only do big food and retail companies want green solutions, but scientifically speaking, green solutions often make sense for them," Corrigan said. "When I go into residential accounts, the perspective is often ‘green schmeen — do whatever you have to do to keep my house pest-free.’ But in the food industry, the focus is on minimizing pesticide use. While no one wants contamination from rodent hair or feces, they also don’t want large amounts of pesticides in their manufacturing, packaging and distribution facilities. We’re studying alternative solutions."
Complex Environments. Traditionally, pest management professionals followed certain standards in protecting large food operations from rodents — bait stations every 50 to 100 feet outside a warehouse and traps every 20 to 40 feet inside, for example. Corrigan takes issue with this type of "yardstick pest management": "We love uniformity — barriers of protection — when it comes to food safety. But these standards were developed 50 years ago, based on two incorrect notions: that rodents always follow walls (in fact, they move around adeptly without walls) and that they have home ranges of only 10 to 100 feet (we know now that rats can have home ranges as far as 450 feet)."
The uniform distribution of bait stations and traps also assumes an even distribution of pests, which is virtually never the case. Animal populations naturally appear in clumped distributions, so the reality is more likely to be that a facility needs to place bait stations closer in some areas and not at all in others.
Corrigan reports a specific case in which 78 percent of the methodically placed bait stations in a million-square-foot warehouse he examined showed no signs of activity month after month. More than 80 percent of the interior traps hadn’t seen a mouse in years. The company removed the inactive equipment for three years without experiencing a single increase in infestations.
Lesson learned? Big box stores and giant retail and food plants are complex, unique environments. No two facilities are the same, nor should they be treated the same. Protecting them requires thought, careful examination and tailored solutions.
A Shift. I personally don’t believe it is an overreach to ask of a technician in IPM situations to think more like a scientist than a technician. He or she must conscientiously observe, collect and analyze data, and formulate solutions that protect the customer’s facility in an environmentally responsible manner rather than by simply setting stations and traps according to prescribed, standard measurements.
The process begins with a thorough inspection. "Going forward, the pest management companies with the best observers are going to be the most successful," Corrigan said. "We have to train our technicians to be meticulous in their observations."
That meticulousness entails much more than walking around with a flashlight, looking into the shadows. Observations must take into account everything that’s happening in and around a facility, as well as in the natural environment that surrounds it. One of the critical aspects of IPM is minimizing the collateral damage of pesticides and traps by being aware of the species surrounding a facility, as well as their behavioral patterns.
Technicians also must become savvy analyzers. They must be able to not only collect data, such as the number of hits at each bait station and trap, but also determine what those data mean. What does it mean if station 41 is the hottest? Where are the rodents coming from? How are they "clumping" around the facility?
Finally, the technician needs to determine a strategy for pesticide and trap placement that maximizes protection while minimizing negative environmental impacts.
A Threat to Financials? While it may seem as though the customer will be the only one to benefit financially from the switch to IPM, as a pest management professional, you simply need to reframe your way of thinking. If your customer has fewer bait stations, less of your time will be spent checking baits. But remember that you’ll be spending more time in an investigator, proactive mode.
"Let’s say you have 100 bait stations, and you take them down to 12 left in strategic spots," Corrigan says. "The time saved in checking those 88 stations doesn’t go away; it gets rechanneled into investigation and inspections."
Corrigan also suggests that educating customers can help pest management companies command more aggressive pricing. "When a customer asks about pest-proofing their building, we need to make it clear that rodent-proofing isn’t the same as weather-proofing," he says. "It’s a specialized procedure. Likewise, caulks are not sealants. Yet I often hear technicians say, ‘You need to caulk up that wall.’ Please don’t use the word ‘caulk.’ And please don’t tell you customer to weather-strip a door to keep mice out. We should aggressively sell pest proofing and be charging top dollar for it."
The Future. The big players in food and big-box retail are driving the momentum toward IPM. "These companies are saying, ‘Maybe we don’t need those standard exterior programs, the bait stations lined up beautifully every 50 feet. Maybe we don’t need those interior mousetraps. Maybe it just doesn’t make sense. They’re turning to IPM for more scientifically based solutions and encouraging their business partners to follow suit."
Forward-thinking pest management firms are fulfilling their expectations and adjusting their business models so that it makes sense from a business perspective.
"I remember when our industry fought against tamper-resistant bait stations," Corrigan says. "The overarching belief was that we didn’t really need them to be tamper-proof — that this feature would just drive up their cost and hurt our business. But we’re a far better, far more effective industry today because of tamper-resistant bait stations. We need to recognize opportunities for progress. IPM gives us the opportunity to deliver greater value to customers through a scientific approach vs. excessive and arbitrary treatment practices."
The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. E-mail her at email@example.com.