As recent times have shown, a lot can change in the space of a year. Given that premise, we could expect a much greater amount of change in the space of four years. But does that hold true when it comes to rodent control?
For the last four years, QA magazine has teamed with Senestech to produce an annual State of the Market Report on Rodent Control in the Food Industry. With many of the questions remaining the same each year, we are able to take a look back at the year-to-year trends to determine if and how rodent presence and industry perspectives have changed — and what that means related to rodent control.
An interesting marker of change through the years is the respondents’ perspective on the rodents that are of most concern in their facilities. Throughout the years, the top rodent species of concern has been mice, but in 2020, the gap between the top concern (mice, 46%) and respondents stating that no rodents were of high concern (34%) were significantly reduced — to a difference of only 12%. Prior to that, the closest variation between respondents citing a rodent species as being greatest concern and those citing no rodent as being of great concern was 48% in 2017. (Table 1)
The reason for this dramatic decrease can likely be explained by the significant change in percent of respondents who had seen rodents in or near their facility. While nearly all respondents (95%) stated that rodents had been seen in/near their facility in 2017, only 52% did in 2020. The intervening years saw a somewhat gradual progression toward this, although 2018 and 2019 were statistically equivalent. (Table 2)
If judged by the results of the survey, however, those few rodents that were seen still were able to cause infestations. While few saw an increase in infestations since the previous year, the response that the number of infestations had “stayed the same” since the previous year was consistently the highest response. Additionally, fewer respondents saw infestations as having decreased in 2020 (13%) than in 2017 (39%). (Table 3) While the COVID-19 challenges of 2020 could have had some impact on this, it also causes us to wonder what responses would have looked like in 2016 had a similar survey been conducted then.
With all this variation, however, respondent concern about the damage that rodents can cause remained relatively the same through the years. In each year’s survey, the highest percent of respondents saw food contamination as being of greatest concern, while the fewest responded that they had no concerns about rodent damage. The one outlier in responses of the four years was the switch between numbers ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in 2020. Whereas customer concern had come in second in 2017-2019, inspection/audit citations tied for first in 2020, with customer concerns ranking third.
In the following pages, we focus in on the rodent activity and prevention and control programs of 2020 to see if we can shed some light on what was, in so many other areas of business and life as well, a unique and challenging year.
While fewer respondents reported rodent sightings in or near their facilities in 2020 than in any other year of the QA/Senestech survey (Table 2, page 3), of the 52% who did have sightings, the rodents were most frequently seen outside the facility (54%) (Table 5). However, when respondents were asked to select all sites of rodent sightings, both outdoor and interior areas were named (Table 6).
In that case, “outside the facility” still held the leading position (82%), but nearly half (45%) noted rodent sightings in warehouse or storage areas, and one-fourth saw rodents in interior dock areas. Similarly, the second most frequent location of rodent sightings was reported to be the warehouse/storage areas (25%). It comes as no surprise that these locations — where food is regularly delivered and stored — had the most sightings. And, as you will see further in this report, these also were the areas where facilities most focused their prevention and control programs.
While these sightings may evoke images of a worker seeing a mouse scurrying across the floor or a rat gnawing on a pallet of chips, the majority of rodent activity was detected through the pest service provider’s report (84%) or the capture of the rodents in exterior (74%) or interior (72%) monitors and traps (Table 7). Thus, while rodents have been “seen” in the majority of food facilities, those rodents were not running wild, but were being controlled in one way or another.
That does not rule out the potential of an employee actually seeing a mouse or rat, but nearly all facilities (95%) had policies in place for actions to take should a rodent be sighted. These include:
- 88%: Inform a supervisor. •
- 40%: Write it up in a pest sighting logbook. •
- 30%: Contact a pest control technician. •
- 17%: Other defined procedure. •
- 5%: We have no set policy for this.
Mice and rats can transmit 200 pathogens and 35 diseases to humans; cause significant structural damage by chewing through materials such as plastic, wood and sheetrock; and have been known to chew through wiring, putting buildings at risk of electrical fires. With mice and rats able to produce multiple litters in a single year, with about six (mice) and up to 12 (rats) in a single litter, the potential damage wrought by the entry of a single female rodent can be significant, making prevention an essential practice for food facilities. This is particularly true when one considers the 82% of our survey respondents who stated that rodents had been sighted outside their facilities (Table 6, page 4).
So, what steps were taken to prevent those rodents from getting into the facility and causing damage? Of the 97% of respondents who have preventive practices in place (Table 8), the most common practice was that of regular inspection (95%). This was very closely followed by a focus on the areas where rodents were most frequently seen, with rodent traps near doors (94%) to prevent outdoor rodents from coming in and traps in ingredients or supplies (93%).
A high majority of facilities also prevented the entry of outdoor-originating rodents through the sealing of cracks and gaps (88%), instructing employees to keep doors closed (88%) and installing door sweeps or air doors (78%).
I have been hearing the phrase “return to normal” a lot lately. Mostly it’s used in a joyous manner, celebrating that we’ve almost broken the hold COVID-19 has held on us for more than a year. I like it when it’s used that way. But I’d like to offer that maybe we don’t want to go back to “normal.” I propose that we move forward to “better.”
Let’s first think about what that old normal was: a divisive political environment; the resurgence of measles in the United States because of unvaccinated children; foods still causing disease outbreaks; foods still being recalled. And on an individual note for quality managers, we still had to remind our employees about good manufacturing practices (GMPs) daily. I know we can all do better.
“What would better look like, though?” you might ask. As quality managers, our two primary goals are consistency and continuous improvement. As food safety managers, our goal is zero food safety incidents. Better, then, would mean achieving these goals — consistently producing safe products, consistently verifying that we are doing what we said we’d do, consistently looking for areas where there is potential for improvement.
Sadly, food safety and quality managers are not responsible for the individual actions that create these results. The true responsibility lies with each individual in the production process. We rely on individual employees to follow the rules, comply with standard operating procedures (SOPs), operate equipment as it was designed and to have the personal integrity to always do the right thing. This is company culture, and it’s our task to create an environment where better can be achieved.
What is the right thing to do, and how do we make it easier for workers to do that instead of cutting corners? Think about the simple GMP of handwashing. I’m betting you’ve found it easier in the past year to get workers to wash their hands.
Everyone has learned what viruses or diseases our hands may transmit, and that washing them routinely helps prevent illness for themselves and their coworkers. I’m hoping that it’s gotten easier to ensure all GMPs are followed because of that. Everyone learning about personal hygiene can certainly be the springboard for educating staff about other areas within the plant management scheme. We can build from that one area so that all employees are now concerned and educated about the best mitigation methods in other work areas. We can create the awareness and compliance in other areas of our businesses.
I believe that employees who understand the reasoning behind requirements create an environment that has the proper food safety and quality culture. It is our job to provide employees with that understanding. We need to share the “why” behind each SOP and GMP. We need to carry this ideal forward each day, creating the awareness that comes from knowledge. Our task then becomes guiding the enlightened employees as they carry the culture into their daily tasks.
With this culture, everyone keeps their work space clean and tidy, everyone wears hair restraints properly all the time, everyone helps to keep the doors and windows closed. Compliance with all your GMPs will be better.
Remember, if the company goes out of business because one employee doesn’t do the right thing, everyone loses their job — not just that one worker. We need to bring all of our employees together with the common goal of everyone keeping their job because the company is staying in business. Now is the time to build on what the pandemic has taught us, creating a culture and business environment where we achieve more together.
For me, going back to normal is just a way of saying that we’re going to accept the issues and failures of the past. We can mark this as the moment when we began to work together, find common ground, improve programs and eliminate food poisonings together with education and understanding. History will mark this as the time when we decided to learn from the past and create a worthwhile, better future for ourselves, our workers and our workplaces, maybe even for our society. Now is our moment! Now is the opportunity to get to “better.”