Preventing Foodborne Illness through Regulatory Compliance and Proper Pest Control
By Jim Fredericks, Ph.D.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in six Americans gets sick, 128,000 people are hospitalized, and more than 3,000 people die from foodborne diseases each year.
Preventing foodborne disease is a critical component of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it, therefore reducing human encounters with foodborne illnesses. It provides increased regulatory oversight for all food facilities and, as a result, stricter sanitation standards that cannot be met without proper pest management.
Food production facilities, grocery retail locations, and restaurants are at risk for attracting pests, as they have the ideal conditions for pests to thrive: food, water, and shelter. And as the majority of the food eaten in America passes through the food industry, food facilities must be vigilant in fighting pests. Unsanitary conditions coupled with disease-carrying vermin can cause widespread outbreaks of various foodborne diseases linked to pathogens such as Escherichia coli and Salmonella. Pests can also contribute to food rotting, and oftentimes, a publicized pest sighting can affect profits and reputation if it travels via word of mouth or across social media.
Pest management can be challenging in food processing facilities and warehouses due to the sheer size and complexity of these facilities. To combat this and to develop a comprehensive, customized, integrated pest management (IPM) program that will reduce future pest problems and adhere to FSMA standards, it is essential to work with a licensed pest management professional. Additionally, to help food facilities ensure that the pest management protocols they put in place will help them pass FSMA audits, the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) has developed its own set of standards specific to these facilities.
Pest control, when completed by a licensed pest management professional, can help food facilities adhere to ever-changing food safety regulations and prevent potential problems.
NPMA standards emphasize and formalize industry best practices specific to food facilities. When it comes to pest management, programs should be customized to fit the needs of the facility and continually updated to best reflect facility and regulation changes. To best address this, the NPMA standards provide a results-oriented approach, based on industry trends, inspection, and observation, that can serve as a benchmark for various pest management practices and procedures.
These standards, first developed in 2007, are continually updated to best reflect the changing regulatory landscape. The most recent updates were made in October 2016 and feature input from several third-party auditors and the structural pest management industry to ensure that compliance with NPMA standards will meet or exceed any other standard concerning pest management in food facilities. The easiest path to success (and compliance) is to work with a pest control professional who has a clear understanding of NPMA standards and how they can be implemented to comply with FSMA.
According to NPMA standards, pest management professionals should perform a monthly site survey to identify pests and the potential for infestation based on building maintenance, employee practices, incoming materials, processes, and shipping. On the exterior of the facility, the guidelines recommend managing vegetation against the building to minimize risk for a pest infestation indoors. Vegetation and plant life need to be 18 inches from the foundation perimeter, grass should be cut low, and bushes and shrubs should be closely trimmed to eliminate potential hideouts for pests such as rodents.
For the interior of the building, NPMA guidelines provide additional insight into different ways to survey, design, implement, and monitor for rodents, insects, birds, and wildlife that can be personalized for each food facility. The updated version also provides baseline guidance on what to do in situations where historical data are unavailable. This means that food facilities that have never had a pest management program in place, or facilities that do not have a detailed understanding of past, current, or potential pest problems can better create a customized pest management program.
Compliance with the NPMA standards will help food facilities ensure their own unique pest concerns and requirements are understood and considered as a pest management program is developed and continually reevaluated.
Pests and Food Safety
Many pests can affect food safety. Depending on the species, they can carry viruses and bacteria, transmitting them through contact with food items and preparation surfaces.
As FSMA focuses on preventing food contamination, a general understanding of pests and the conditions that attract them is important. Food facilities should partner with pest control professionals to understand their unique pest risk, develop a plan of action in case of an infestation, and determine the specific facility requirements and government-implemented rules and regulations that need to be adhered to.
Every facility is at risk for its own unique pest problems. Location, type of food being processed or handled, overall sanitation, and building vulnerabilities are some factors that will help determine which pests pose a risk. The most common pest problems in food safety are the following:
Cockroaches are resilient and among the most problematic pests in commercial establishments. Not only do they incite disgust, but cockroaches also are host to many health hazards. They are known to spread at least 33 kinds of bacteria, six kinds of parasitic worms, and at least seven other kinds of human pathogens. Cockroaches and the allergens they leave behind may also cause allergic reactions and trigger asthma attacks, with increased incidence in young children.
Cockroaches thrive in cracks and crevices, and will feed on practically anything of nutritive value. They are attracted to environments where food and moisture are present, making food facilities an ideal shelter.
Flies are one of the most visible pests, especially in food facilities. Not only are they a nuisance, but they also are responsible for transmitting diseases and contaminating food. In fact, flies can transfer more than 100 pathogens and diseases, including Salmonella, malaria, and tuberculosis. Food contamination is one of the main reasons that fly control is so important.
For proper fly control, food facilities should consider a long-term solution that relies on both prevention and improved sanitation. Fly control is challenging, and as they procreate quickly and in large quantities, their larval development sites must be located promptly and eliminated for success. These sites are often discovered quite a distance from where adult flies are present.
Rodents are difficult to keep out of structures as mice can squeeze through spaces as small as a dime and rats can fit through holes the size of a quarter. Consequently, rodent control should focus on exclusion to ensure openings into the facilities are sealed.
Rodents can spread disease and carry other hazardous organisms, such as fleas and ticks. Additionally, rodents can damage your facility’s structure by chewing through drywall, insulation, wood, and electrical wiring, increasing the risk for fires.
Ants are one of the largest pest problems faced by food facilities and one of the most difficult pests to control—mainly because they live in large colonies. Ants typically enter buildings seeking shelter or sustenance, and feed on practically every kind of food, especially sweets and sources of protein. Ant control should focus on exclusion methods that seal off any possible routes of entry. Additionally, finding the nest location or determining the entry point is an essential step in control.
Birds are considered an occasional invader pest that can pose a serious problem in food facilities. Birds can damage or destroy property, eat and contaminate food items, and are a health concern.
Birds often roost in structures and may harbor diseases such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and histoplasmosis, a respiratory disease that can be spread through bird droppings. Depending on the species, there are various forms of bird control.
Integrated Pest Management
It is important to have a proactive pest management plan in place to comply with FSMA and minimize risk of food contamination. Nevertheless, pest control can be easily overlooked.
Working with a pest management professional will ensure a proper IPM program is in place that will address any potential pest problems. IPM programs focus on pest prevention by eliminating entry points and sources of food, water, and shelter for pests. This can be difficult in food facilities, which is why IPM programs need to be regularly updated to ensure they meet the current pest concerns of facilities.
IPM can be especially useful for food facilities required to follow strict regulations, such as FSMA, specific food allergen control programs, or the requirements of U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards. IPM programs take any and all facility requirements into consideration during program development. Furthermore, IPM also helps ensure pest control is done in a proactive, sustainable manner.
Working with an accredited pest management professional who understands NPMA guidelines can help ensure food processing and handling facilities are acting in accordance with the sanitation standards set forth by FSMA. Pest management is a critical component of food safety programs in facilities nationwide, and pest management professionals have the training and experience to overcome the most difficult pest problems and can help food facilities ensure they are not at risk for food contamination. Accredited professionals can be found at PestWorld.org.
Jim Fredericks, Ph.D., is chief entomologist and vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for NPMA.