IPM in Food Plants

Features - Pest Control

How far have we come?

December 11, 2014

Thinking about integrated pest management (IPM) today compared with extermination of many years ago, I have to smile. I remember my first real-paying job was spending weekends with a friend in a small family bakery, working 10 hours a day as the clean-up crew. It is hard to believe, but I started this job before there even was an official EPA. Things sure have changed since then!

Yesterday’s Extermination.

In those days, when mice got into the facility, which was common, my job was to get rid of them. I could simply chase them with a broom. Or, my other option was to spread around some bait, then try to find the mice when they died the next week. Snap traps were also available and, after a few bruised fingers, I got the knack for setting them. What did a 14-year-old kid know about mouse control?

Looking back reminds me that in those early days, the emphasis of pest control was to rely solely on liberal use of pesticides to accomplish a reduction in the pest population. There was certainly no shortage of dead bodies to demonstrate to customers that the treatment was effective in killing the pests. Some efforts were truly amazing and were cataloged with pictures to convince other potential customers that if they hired this company, they could expect the same results.

Since the focus was on getting the pesticide out into a broad area quickly so nothing could escape, the researchers developed methods for fogging materials that would get the insecticides out faster and deeper into the hiding places. Throughout this time in our history, we were wrapped up in demonstrating how many cockroaches, flies, or other insects we could kill. Never did we consider that those that survived would repopulate the same area. We were less concerned about the biology and behavior of these pests than our ability to keep killing them in large numbers.

Were it not for some of the great minds during our time, we would likely still be practicing the kill game and remain ignorant of what IPM truly means. Fortunately, we had people who were curious enough to ask the question “Why?” and dedicate themselves to looking for the answer. People, who realized the answer needed to be shared, spent their lives dedicated to educating all who would listen to the importance of their discoveries. People like Arnold Mallis, Austin Frishman, Vern Walter, Bobby Corrigan, and many others created the opportunity for knowledge to be shared and change to occur.

Today’s Pest Management.

Today, IPM has evolved into a science-based program that relies heavily on our understanding of a pest’s biology and behavior. Fortunately, because of this, the programs have migrated away from a reliance on pesticides as the sole response. Now the expectation is that professionals will use many tools to manage a pest issue with the goal of ultimately eliminating the population from the area of concern.

We no longer just take a shot in the dark when it comes to pest issues. We have learned to complete a detailed assessment of the facility to determine the presence of pests and the overall level of activity present. Armed with this knowledge, we step back and assess the best approach to deal with the issues at hand. We think in terms of modifying the environment through changes in sanitation, engineering, practices, and pesticides that will have the greatest impact on the population. Sometimes we have to realize that our best effort will not lead to elimination of a pest population, so we have to strive to reduce the population to a tolerable level so pests have no negative impact on the food products or people working in the facility.

Education must always be a major thrust of a viable IPM program. For obvious reasons, if people knew what they were doing was wrong and their activity was encouraging pest activity, we would hope they would stop doing these things. Unfortunately, ignorance is alive and well in every aspect of integrated pest management. In many cases, the term IPM has become just a buzz word, and the work being done under its banner does not represent the intent of the program. Unfortunately for many customers, the term IPM is simply new window dressing for the same old chemical-intense approach that has the same failure rate as in the past.

Tomorrow’s Pest Program.

There is change coming. New regulations such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the requirements for intensive audits conducted as a result of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and a better understanding of IPM by customers is placing pressure on IPM practitioners to step up and do the job right. There will be a much higher scrutiny of programs under these new rules and programs. Weak programs will be identified and changes will be required to remain in the competition for business.

Inspections, with clearly documented findings providing an in-depth look at a facility and clear recommendations for solutions to pest issues, are an important part of any IPM program. Unfortunately, many IPM inspections or assessments I review deal mostly with the number of captures or baiting devices and very little with defining the threat the facility faces. More often than not, no mention of other pest issues beyond rodents is being addressed in these assessments. Not only is this practice not conforming to the doctrine of IPM, it is negligence and a failure in professionalism. What benefit does a food manufacturing facility gain from an assessment where the provider says it has the right number of bait stations and rodent monitoring devices in place but the facility is experiencing significant issues with stored product insects and German cockroaches throughout the facility—particularlywhen these are not mentioned anywhere in the IPM report?

A cornerstone of both FSMA and GFSI is preventive controls. FDA and consumers want a more proactive approach to food safety and far less of a reactive approach where intervention and action is taken only after an event has occurred. The same applies to pest management. The expectation will no longer be that a pest management company shows up after an event has happened and begins looking at ways to fix what should never have happened in the first place. A company can debate that you are only providing what the food plant will pay for, but in reality, many contracts are sold with a limited scope of service because the sales personnel fail to realize the extent of the problems.

Monitoring and Analysis.

All food plants should have active monitoring programs that enable them to collect information on levels of pest activity at any given time. The use of pheromone traps for specific high-risk species of stored product pests as well as general-use glueboards to alert for other invading species is an imperative. What follows that is the difficult part of the program—having someone who can recognize and assign significance to what is being captured in the devices. Too often those who are less informed rely on just reporting a total number of insects and miss the step of identifying the significant insects. The solution to this issue is education of the people responsible for the checks.

The lack of knowledge on the part of a technician leads to misrepresenting the significant information in the report to the company. I recently conducted an assessment of a food plant experiencing significant insect issues. Looking at the contractor’s assessment and service records, you would not know the true extent of the issues. Captures in light traps were documented as 1-50, 50-100, and 100+. When the glueboards in the light traps were examined, they revealed that German cockroaches, warehouse beetles, cigarette beetles, and Indianmeal moths were among the insects that made up the numbers reported. Month after month, the same result was reported with no indication that the facility had an issue with stored product insects showing up in the light traps.

Trending Analysis?

Another item I frequently hear about, which is a vital aspect of IPM, is trending reports. I wish it was mandatory for every person uttering the words to have taken at least one class in statistics or looked up the term in a dictionary. According to the Urban Dictionary, trend is defined as a mutilation of the English language as “currently popular.” The Oxford English dictionary, however, says trend is “a change or development in a general direction.” One would imagine that doing IPM trending is popular in some circles so we, too, must have one.

Based on this, trending should be done to detect a change in the overall program. The change is identified from the data collected from each device in total. When data indicate an upward trend in population, deeper analysis would identify the precise location of the data point(s) where change occurred, and trigger a response.

I have encountered a few firms that emphasize weekly trending of individual devices. This is excessively time consuming and yields information of little to no value about the program. The device is a data point that provides a value for the trend analysis over a defined period of time. A requirement for 52 trending reports per year for every rodent monitoring device which consists of a solitary data point does not provide much useful information when compared to the sum total of data points presented on a visual graph of total weekly activity in the program. Always keep in mind that the collection of data without significance, just to have data, is simply a drain on limited resources. Measure everything you do against a desired outcome.

IPM is not just a string of three letters; it is an important process that requires the practitioners to possess a high level of knowledge. Without this knowledge to recognize what a facility is facing and the most appropriate steps that need to be taken, the programs being pushed onto these food plants are no different than those of the past. Education about what to expect in a particular food plant, how to search for potential issues and what to do if you find them is an absolute mandate of a good IPM program.

We are at a point in time where excusing a lack of performance by food companies and pest management firms due to not knowing the right information is becoming inexcusable. Regulations and customer expectations require more. Each failure costs a food company significant amounts of money. Shutting down production for two or three days, while pest management companies try to execute a solution for a problem that should not have occurred in the first place, will receive less tolerance.

IPM is not a new concept as a quote from the 1856 publication The Practical Entomologist shows: “If the work of destroying insects is to be accomplished satisfactorily, we feel confident that it will have to be the result of no chemical preparations, but of simple means, directed by knowledge of the history and habits of the pest.”


The author is Director of Education for Clark Pest Control.