By Lisa Lupo

Although bed bugs are not frequently discussed as a problem in food processing facilities and are not generally seen as a primary concern, they can be an issue. This is because bed bugs can be carried into the facility with employees whose homes are infested, but they will often remain undetected until there is a major problem.

One of the most misunderstood bed bug facts is that these tiny bugs can be carried by anyone to anywhere. “Bed bugs do not live in the external environment and cannot fly,” said Copesan Director of Technical Support and Regulatory Compliance Bennett Jordan. “To get from place to place, and to a food plant, they must travel with people.” But they do not spend time on people like ticks or fleas do, so it’s most likely that they move with people’s belongings.

“Bed bugs are normally nocturnal and cryptic insects that come out of hiding to take blood meals from sleeping or quietly resting humans,” added Industrial Fumigant Company Entomologist Jerry Heath. Thus, the most likely habitats for bed bugs will be on or near upholstered furniture. Then when people sit or lie there, they can become accidental, unknowing carriers — potentially into your food facility.

This is because, Heath said, “Rather than returning to a regular hiding place, bed bugs may find their way into luggage, purses, backpacks, jackets, etc., nearby and be easily carried to a residence, employee locker room, or work station.” A hitchhiking bed bug can then drop off almost anywhere and find a new carrier.

Thus, said Syngenta Professional Pest Management Technical Services Manager Chris Keefer, “The most likely scenario is that bed bugs are brought into food plants via employees and their personal belongings.” Once in the plant, the bugs tend to be most problematic in places like offices, locker rooms, break rooms, waiting rooms, and on-site laundry rooms.

Not only do they come in with employees, the bed bugs prefer areas where clothing and personal items are stored. So lockers are a great hiding place for bed bugs and are often the initial point of infestation, said MGK Technical Services Manager and Entomologist Jeff Howell.

On a positive note, the food processing areas of the plant are not very hospitable to bed bugs. That is, given their biology and need to seek blood meals, it is unlikely that bed bugs will get into these areas. But it is possible — though random and unlikely — that bed bugs could drop off the initial carrier and make their way to new ones. Although McCloud Services Technical Director Pat Hottel does not know of any facility that has had bed bugs appear in the processing area, she said, “Policies emphasizing the storing of personal items in designated areas like lockers and the handling of uniforms will help to reduce that possibility.”

And, Keefer added, “In a full-blown infestation, they can seek harborage in unusual areas, so it’s important to be vigilant.”

DETECTION AND ELIMINATION. There are two ways bed bugs are most likely be noticed, Jordan said: through a monitoring device or an employee sighting. Sticky traps are the most common general-insect monitoring device used, but they are not particularly effective for detecting bed bugs, especially at very low levels, he said. “If the bed bug is in a locker room, for example, the pest management professional has limited access or reason to be performing detailed inspections unless an issue has already been identified.” Thus, it’s more likely that an employee would be the first to notice bed bugs on their belongings or walking around and record it in a pest sighting log or alert someone at the facility.

If caught before the infestation spreads, an inspection will usually find bed bugs limited to a single locker or a few adjoining lockers. So, Heath said, “Often a few potential carriers can be identified and inspections can extend to their customary workplaces.”

In fact, Hottel said, “It is crucial to locate the individual who is responsible for bringing in the bed bugs in order to help prevent re-introductions.” Monitors can be useful as a follow-up to a visual inspection.

If bed bugs are discovered, the food facility should call its pest control company. “Make sure they are experienced with bed bugs and with the needs/requirements for treating in a food processing facility,” Howell cautioned.

The pest control professional can make an identification to confirm if the bug truly is a bed bug. “We still find people will misidentify bed bugs,” Hottel said. “Tick sightings have increased in food plants (ticks hitchhike on employees), and it is not uncommon for the public to mis-identify a tick as a bed bug.”

Once confirmed, “a thorough inspection around the area of discovery should take place and bed bug monitoring devices should be placed,” Jordan said. “Additionally, since the pest was most likely brought in by an employee, there should be an avenue for employees to talk to management. It’s important not to stigmatize anyone nor make anyone feel blamed. If anyone comes forward to say they have a bed bug problem in their home, that should be kept confidential.”

Integrated pest management strategies should be utilized for a bed bug control plan, Keefer said. This could include both chemical and non-chemical control methods such as (where food-facility approved) residual and non-residual chemical applications, heat or freezing, vault fumigation of furniture, steam, or vacuuming with an appropriate filter. “Bed bugs can also be blown out of cracks and crevices with compressed air, which can be used for inspection, detection, or to move bed bugs out of sensitive areas and into the treatment zone,” he said.

One of the most misunderstood bed bug facts is that these tiny bugs can be carried by anyone to anywhere.

EMPLOYEE COMMUNICATION. It’s important to make employees aware that bed bugs have been found onsite, and it’s just as important to communicate what that means. “There will be fear and anxiety that can largely be quelled with a little bit of information,” Jordan said. That is, in these situations, it is more likely there would be a bed bug introduction and not an infestation. A single bug that is inadvertently brought into the facility will not necessarily lead to an established, breeding population. So if a single bed bug is found, it may very well be the only one present.

On the other hand, it is important to take action on any sighting to determine if it is a one-off or an infestation. “Encourage locker room cleanouts and quick removal of soiled uniform laundry,” Heath said. “Try not to foster hysteria, but most employees will probably be motivated to bag clothing items in their lockers and take things home to be laundered which will kill all stages of bed bugs.” Additionally, he said, a bed bug incident can present a good opportunity to call for a general locker cleanout and pest control treatment which is good to do periodically.

It can be ticklish to inform suspected carriers in a sensitive way without creating undue discrimination by other employees, Heath added. “Some incidents have escalated to ugly situations involving unions and all levels of company management.” So a general notice would be in order that bed bugs were discovered and professional treatments were made. Emphasize that bed bugs are currently the number one urban pest in many cities today, that people can become unknowing carriers almost anywhere, and they can carry them to a residence, he said. “Bed bugs are randomly hitchhiking on people or their belongings and dropping off indiscriminately as well. No one is immune.”

Thus, all food facilities should have a plan in case an incident were to occur. “We encourage our clients to have a response program in place prior to the first sighting of a bed bug,” Hottel said. “This will help determine how a staff member will be handled if they are suspected of bringing a bed bug into the workplace. There should be proactive communication and education with staff regarding the concerns of bringing in any pest from home, including bed bugs and German cockroaches.”

PREVENTION. While there is no feasible way to absolutely prevent the introduction of a bed bug, following are some recommendations to aid in prevention:

  • “There will always be some risk of introducing bed bugs into a facility,” Hottel said. So, following best practices, such as having designated areas for storage of personal belongings, is important. “It is also very important to educate staff of the importance of not bringing pests from home.”
  • “A food facility should be conducting routine inspections of areas that have the potential to house bed bugs, and monitoring devices should also be used in these areas,” Keefer said. “Complaints from employees who suspect or claim to find bed bugs should be fielded appropriately.”
  • “Bed bugs could be re-introduced by the same or new carriers at any time. If bed bugs, or other employee-carried pests, are presenting chronic issues, consider having residual treatments made to lockers and lunch areas routinely,” Heath said.
  • Providing bed bug education to employees will help them identify problems in their homes and decrease the likelihood they will hitchhike with them into a food plant, Jordan said. “Teaching employees how to recognize a bed bug will also help in early identification should one show up onsite.”
  • “If an employee suspects or finds bed bugs at their personal residence, an agreement with the facility’s pest management provider could be made to treat the residence at a discount or offer monitoring devices to confirm the presence of bed bugs,” Keefer added.
  • “If employees have bed bugs at home and can’t afford to treat, then most likely bed bugs will be reintroduced at some point,” Howell said. “Aiding employees in taking care of bed bug problems is beneficial to all involved.”

Although bed bugs are not a primary pest in food facilities, they can occur and an infestation can spread the bugs not only through the facility, but also to employees’ homes.

Thus, Keefer said, “Food facilities should have a comprehensive bed bug plan in place for inspection, identification, collection, and communication.” This can include, but is not limited to, having a microscope on-site to help identify specimens; having open communication with employees; and regularly contracting with a pest management provider.

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.