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.
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.
PMPs must raise their game when it comes to training employees on preventive pest management practices.
Food industry clients expect professional-grade, advisory-based pest management service now, more than ever, due to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). They need consultants, not trap checkers; most get the latter.
“Generally, pest control service providers haven’t been looking at [training] from a FSMA lens,” said Angela Anadappa, founder of the Alliance for Advanced Sanitation, a non-profit organization that conducts food safety research, assessments and training. As a result, few pest control companies have enough people trained to provide the required level of service, she said.
This training costs money but the return on investment is huge, said Joe Barile, technical service lead at Bayer. “You’re going to be able to communicate with people in a different way; you’re going to understand their world, their anxieties, their pain points and as such, adjust the service accordingly and be a much more efficient service provider to them,” he explained.
Experts said employees need training in pest biology, equipment and materials, as usual, but also in the following areas:
Food Safety. Understand what a food safety program is. “It helps you to have a relevance that you can pull in in terms of your pest control background,” said Anadappa. As such, you can provide a better service because you understand your client’s challenges and you can speak the same language as the plant’s food safety and quality assurance managers.
Likewise, make sure employees comprehend the current good manufacturing practices (cGMPs) at the plant, which dictate their actions on site.
Location-Specific Pest Risks. To prevent pests at a facility, employees have to understand the risks, which are unique to each site. “The types of pests associated with different geographical areas and product-related risks are very important for them to know,” said Anadappa.
Pest risks vary by building design and material, by the equipment and raw materials used at the site, and the structure’s pest history. Such insights help employees perform inspections and identify where pest proofing is needed to prevent potential pests from entering the facility.
Exclusion. From replacing seals on bay doors to bird work, food clients want more pest proofing. “They’re more willing to make an investment in preventive programs and they understand there can’t be a tolerance for pest issues,” said Hank Hirsch, president of RK Environmental Services. As such, employees need to learn exclusion. “We have developed more programs for exclusion, more training on exclusion to help meet the demand and the acceptance on the part of the food industry to allow us to do those services,” said Pat Hottel, technical director, McCloud Services.
Data Analysis. Train employees to use technology, such as a remote electronic rodent monitoring system, and to understand the data it generates. Rodent monitoring systems allow PMPs to monitor rodent activity in real-time and determine historical trends in an account, resulting in better-informed and more highly targeted trap placements.
Not only is this key to helping clients prevent pest infestations, but learning these skills appeals to younger workers.
“That is how you can give them better jobs, so they become much better skilled,” said Anadappa. As a result, you may find it easier to attract and retain professional talent to your company, she said.
Standardized Reporting. “We need to calibrate technicians for food safety,” said Chris Del Rossi, founder of Food and Drug and the Bug, a pest services company. They must be trained to observe and document pest activity in a consistent, standardized fashion, instead of reporting the same situation differently. A systemized approach also must guide the preventive and corrective actions they undertake.
FSMA carries a legal burden. “We can be named in a lawsuit if you don’t adequately address the pest issue at hand through documentation and treatment procedures,” said Dan Collins, a frequent speaker at industry educational events. Field staff need to understand they are culpable, he pointed out. In addition, manufacturers can be fined or jailed if they know about but do not correct a deficiency. This is called the Park Doctrine. It permits the government to prosecute employees for corporate misconduct when they are in a position of authority and fail to prevent or correct a violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).
Client Education. Train employees to teach food clients how to be “more observant of their own sanitation, structural and storage conditions that are pest conducive,” said Del Rossi. For instance, clients may not know that stored product pests can come in from outdoors, as well as arrive in supplies.
“Our job is to make the quality and food safety people better at their job and make them look good,” reminded John Moore of Fumigation Service & Supply.
Bidding. Being a low-cost provider is not in your best interest when it comes to FSMA and food safety. “The industry needs to spend far more time inside food accounts and the only way to do that is to charge enough for the time and the talent spent inside these food accounts,” said Del Rossi.
Bidding these jobs by spreadsheet is a mistake; you’ve got to analyze the specific risks of a facility by inspecting it in person, said Collins.
For large projects like bird work, help clients calculate the return on investment. “If they can justify it to their finance department, then they can make those significant changes that will benefit them in the future,” explained Gina Kramer, who leads the Savour Food Safety International consultancy.
Rotten Food = Forgotten Roaches
When a landlord called Betts Pest Control in Wichita, Kan., to report a roach problem, owner Chad Betts was prepared to go in and perform his usual service protocol — but he was definitely not expecting what he discovered. “I noticed roaches around the doors of the refrigerator and freezer,” he describes, noting that the apartment had been empty for some time yet “junk” had been left behind from the previous tenant, including food.
“When I opened up the fridge, it was so full of roaches — you couldn’t have fit another roach in there, and they all dumped out on the floor, thousands of them,” Betts relates.
Apparently, the electricity was cut off when bills weren’t paid, and the leftover food had gone bad. Betts immediately used a spray then shut the refrigerator/freezer doors. “That killed a bunch of them, and then I called the landlord and asked him to remove the rotten food out of the fridge before the second treatment,” he says.
Betts estimates that he could have filled a couple of 5-gallon buckets with the roaches he removed from the site 10 years ago. “Roaches are almost impossible to control if you don’t get sanitation issues resolved,” he says.
At another account, he discovered heaping bowls of cat food placed throughout a home. Litter boxes were overflowing. Water dishes for the pets had splashed all over the floor — and the place looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in years. Because the home was a duplex, the call actually came in from the next-door neighbor. “He was providing the neighbor with an unlimited supply of roaches, and I said, ‘I’ll see what I can do to help you, but until the landlord gets the other tenant to clean up, it’s a lost cause,” Betts relates.
In spite of regular treatments, the roach issue persisted because the tenant could not follow Betts’ suggestion to keep cat food in a sealed container and to not leave the food out 24/7. Eventually, the tenant was evicted. A few weeks later, the roach problem was under control with several thorough treatments.
Help Me Help You
The head chef at a restaurant Carl Braun was servicing enjoyed his bourbon after hours — during the time when Quality Pest Control of Omaha, Neb., performed service. “I wasn’t able to get control — but the bigger problem was, I could not get the message across that unless you keep the area clean, there will always be pests,” he says.
The 4 a.m. service calls when Braun would crawl on hands and knees to place bait felt unproductive. The chef’s attitude was, “I have you, why do I have to do anything?” he says.
Braun decided, “We were not the best company for him. He refused to have any accountability.”
It’s never easy to “fire” a client, but when there’s no cooperation and service is not a success, continuing is a waste. “Sometimes, we need to say, ‘We are not able to help you,’” Braun says.
Drop Ceiling Disaster
The voids above drop ceilings are a common “living room” for roaches. Curtis Rand, vice president of operations at Rose Pest Solutions based in Troy, Mich., knows to look up during an inspection. What he uncovered at a local restaurant during a service call is a constant reminder.
“You typically do not want to see drop ceilings in a restaurant kitchen — so I opened it up and it seemed like 10,000 German cockroaches fell on my head,” he says.
Fortunately, Rand was wearing a zipped-up crawl suit.
Rand and crew spent two-and-a-half hours vacuuming the roaches from the space. “That was a lot of emptying,” he remarks. “Three of us were there and we each had a large HEPA filter vacuum. Each of us emptied those seven or eight times.”
Then, they spent another good hour placing gel bait.
For the next three days in a row, the team returned to the restaurant for follow-up treatment — more vacuuming along with emptying and replacing bait. As the roach infestation dissipated, Rand could identify the source of the problem, and it wasn’t the drop ceiling. “It was the employee locker room where folks were bringing in roaches from the outside,” he says. “You could see them in lunch bags, clothing.”
The restaurant provided employee training on how to look for roaches at home. Rand says, “Once you find the source, it’s not necessarily easier to control but then you can really solve the problem.”
A multi-faceted approach to managing cockroaches allows PMPs to target the treatment to the site.
Chad Moreschi created a tiered, low-impact process for controlling cockroaches for the clients he services in Miami, Fla. “Our mission is to provide the most eco-friendly services possible,” he says, noting that this business focus drives his firm’s service protocols.
First is identification, followed by gel baits. “We use a typical gel bait in places like electrical outlets, cracks and crevices, behind appliances,” he says. “And we use dust.”
Monitoring stations in “hot spots” allows Moreschi to check for activity, and service is performed bi-weekly until the hatched nymphs are eradicated. If necessary, he’ll use a liquid spray to kills adult cockroaches that are actively moving around a site. “But, the goal is to mainly rely on the bait and dust,” he says.
After two weeks, the callback rate is about 5 percent, Moreschi says. He does not rotate cockroach baits and says resistance hasn’t been a problem.
Multi-measure control is a common practice among pest management professionals based on results from PCT’s 2020 State of the Cockroach Market survey. Seventy-four percent of respondents said they use sprayable insecticides and gel baits, while only 9 percent use gel baits alone and 5 percent rely on sprayable insecticides alone.
Of PMPs who offer cockroach control service, 50 percent say their primary control measure is gel baits, while 22 percent said they mostly apply residual pesticides. Just 6 percent say sanitation is the primary control, and no one indicated that glue traps were the No. 1 method of treating roaches. However, for ongoing monitoring, 82 percent use glue traps.
As professional pest management products have evolved, Bery Pannkuk, director of sales at Troy, Mich.-based Rose Pest Solutions, says control certainly has improved. “Years ago, we couldn’t kill a cockroach except with a flyswatter because of the resistance of the chemicals we were all using — and then they invented baits,” he says.
Vacuuming also has become a best practice, Pannkuk adds. “That is positive because the CDC did a study years ago on the allergens from shed skins of cockroaches that become airborne, so vacuuming with a HEPA filter has become more important now,” he says.
“Decluttering is paramount,” Pannkuk adds.
Of course, treatment protocols sometimes depend on the situation. Chad Betts, owner of Betts Pest Control in Wichita, Kan., says bad infestations call for “chemicals first to get a big knockdown.” But if a site is relatively clean, he begins with baits. “If the client follows my protocol for cleaning up, I’ll return within a week or two and bait hot spots.”
Betts also uses dust to get product into voids and cracks and crevices. “The dust is so fine that even if they don’t eat it, they are walking through it and getting exposed to it,” he says.
Insect growth regulators (IGRs) are helpful for breaking the cycle in a bad infestation, Betts adds.
Curtis Rand, vice president of operations at Rose Pest Solutions based in Troy, Mich., says IGRs are helpful in restaurants. “There are only so many places you can spray in a kitchen, so the benefit of IGRs is we can help eliminate the population over time,” he says. “The key is to target the type of treatment you need based on the environment, whether that’s liquid applications, bait, or crack-and-crevice.”
When using any product, Davy Spears, owner of Davy Crockett Pest Control, Pikeville, Ky., emphasizes to his clients that they should not add their own DIY products to the mix. “I let them know that using aerosols will contaminate the baits, too,” he says. “I’ve had a number of customers think that after you do a service, they should spray something on the bait we put down,” he says. “I let them know that using aerosols will contaminate the baits.”
After targeting treatment, control is via maintained ongoing service visits. Rand notes, “The best prevention is a good inspection and follow-up with monitoring.”