Spotlight on Food Safety, Sponsored by Bayer, COVID-19: A Game Changer for Pest Management and Food Safety

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July 15, 2020

Industry professionals share their thoughts on how the pandemic has impacted their ability to service the food-processing industry so essential to feeding our nation.

COVID-19 disrupted business, with food service establishments especially hit hard. Experts discussed the pandemic’s impact on food safety and their ability to provide pest management to food and beverage clients:

Sanitizing. COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness. It can, however, make the people who work in food plants, restaurants and groceries very ill. As such, companies launched disinfection services to help keep workers safe and allay their fears, so they feel comfortable coming into work each day.

RK Environmental Services hired 10 new employees in four weeks to support demand for its new disinfection service. “Business for the short term is better than it has ever been as a result of that, but we know that is not going to last forever,” said President Hank Hirsch.

Food service establishments have been particularly hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Service Changes. Pest professionals also don’t expect food clients to return to business as normal post-COVID. “They’re going to be living under new terms, new guidelines, new operational standards to keep themselves in business. As such, we’re going to have to change to accommodate their changes,” said Joe Barile, technical service lead, Bayer.

Changes may increase pest pressure in some areas of the business and relieve it in others. “Be open to suggestion but be in control of what you see as the pest management challenges that they have to understand,” said Barile.

Project Opportunity. The temporary closure of facilities for disinfection allowed some projects to occur that would be difficult to coordinate pre-COVID. “We’ve been able to do work that might require a facility to be closed or have reduced production schedules, like ULV space treatments, fumigation work, more intensive insecticide crack and crevice applications, bird work,” said Pat Hottel, technical director, McCloud Services.

Route Timing. Many food processing clients now require health screenings for entry to plants. “That can take a little bit of modification on our end as far as when to arrive. If it’s a shift change, we don’t want to be there because they’re screening their employees as well and that can cause some delays in getting in for service,” said Hottel.

Remote Monitoring. The temporary and long-term closures of facilities highlighted the value of remote monitoring for pests like rodents. “I wish that we would have had more electronic remote monitoring out there for some facilities,” said Hottel. This would have let McCloud gather data about pest activity inside facilities even if technician access was denied. “If you need another reason why you’d go with electronic monitoring, there’s one,” she said.

Consolidation Expected. The pandemic was an economic blow to food companies of all sizes. Some won’t survive; others will get bought out. As such, pest management companies could lose (or gain) clients. This is “an unfortunate side effect” of COVID-19, said Dan Collins, a veteran PMP with extensive experience servicing food processing plants.

Higher Safety Awareness. Pest management professionals are more aware of proper safety procedures than ever before, from washing their hands to how they structure their movements through a food operation, said Chris Del Rossi, founder of Food and Drug and the Bug pest services. Safe practices are especially important, for example, after cleaning dirty bait stations or exposure to peanut dust.

“When you’re reminded of good manufacturing practices, the current GMPs, the PMP may say, ‘Wow. Now I know why I have to sign these papers and understand how they want me to carry myself and why,” he said.

Safety Gaps Possible. If workers in food plants and food service become ill, gaps in food safety may appear. Large food companies likely will create departments to address the threat to employee health from COVID-19, said Steven Sklare, president of the Food Safety Academy. “With the devastating impact of COVID-19 it is now incumbent upon us to be better prepared for the next disaster,” he said.