With ingredient and supply chains disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, many food manufacturers that continued operations had to find alternate providers for basic goods on short notice with little assessment. With even FDA postponing foreign and routine facility inspections, there is a likelihood that some less direct food safety parameters, such as pest control, fell through the cracks and were given less consideration — both along supply chains and within the facility itself.

Given the potential long-term consequences of that, what impacts has the pandemic had on pest presence and control? What should food processors and manufacturers require of suppliers — and assess now if they hadn’t before? And what will they need to do to deal with any pandemic-induced pest issues? Following are key points on each from pest management experts.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted pest presence or control?

  1. Pest pressure spikes. It is clear that in metropolitan areas with closed businesses and significant drops in human activity, there was a spike in pest pressure. With the decrease in available resources like food waste and water sources, pests have had no choice but to venture out to find new resource sites. Pests that were harboring in businesses that got closed gained “free rein” to move without observation and/or challenge. – Bayer Technical Service Lead, Pest Management & Public Health, Joe Barile
  2. Pests gain opportunities. The pandemic has disrupted the routines at most businesses, affecting everything from basic operating procedures, such as cleaning and maintenance, to working hours or even closures. All of this creates new opportunities for pests. Dumpsters that are not emptied support fly populations. Supply chain concerns lead to unusual inventory levels of raw ingredients being stored on site and greater susceptibility to stored product pests. Equipment that has gone idle may be perfect harborage for cockroaches. – BASF Strategic Accounts Manager, Poultry/Livestock Pest Management, Brian Mann
  3. Empty buildings increase issues. Pest issues have increased in both food production and retail food establishments. With mandated stay-at-home orders, restaurants that did not maintain take out or delivery service ceased sanitation and pest services. Food facilities that stopped production left food ingredients and equipment unused and potentially unsanitized. This has led to major rodent, small fly, cockroach, and increasing ant issues. – Control Solutions North Central Territory Manager Brian Sundnas
  4. Provider restrictions. Many processors have reduced visitor entry. Although regular service visits may be allowed, there has been some mandated reduction in technical and quality visits, and those who are allowed often have their temperatures taken and health checked. A greater emphasis on examining of data available through electronic documentation enabled some remote quality oversight where systems were implemented, and electronic trap monitors equipped with sensors or cameras enabled the collection of information on pest activity. Additionally, hard-to-schedule, specialized services (such as fumigation, ULV space treatments, detailed crack and crevice insecticide applications, and even bird work) were sometimes able to be provided in plants with reduced hours of operation. – McCloud Technical Director Pat Hottel
  5. Suspended service. Businesses that temporarily closed may be subject to increased infestation, particularly those that cancelled pest control contracts or suspended internal pest control activities because the facility was operating with minimal staff. This could lead to increased infestation levels upon reopening. – Rockwell Lab Owner and CEO Cisse Spragins
It is clear that in metropolitan areas with closed businesses and significant drops in human activity, there was a spike in pest pressure. Pests that were harboring in businesses that got closed gained “free rein” to move without observation or challenge.

What should a food processor require of its ingredient/incoming goods suppliers related to pest management?

  1. Communication. Given the unprecedented times, a full review of the existing process for pest inspection and interception from incoming ingredients and goods should be made internally, including the appropriate representative(s) of your pest management (PM) provider. Review, and share, the historical pressures, specific to source, season, and remediation. Review and update the internal process for inspection, identification, and quarantine/response with the PM. Adjust scheduling and responsibility to existing processes to all stakeholders internally and externally. Can the PM contribute with added services or technology? Communicate the changes being proposed to the upstream supply and logistics chain. These may include increased scrutiny, changing tolerances, and use of new technologies (digital systems) that will contribute to accurate and early detection. Create a communication network with key stakeholders both on site and upstream and include the appropriate PM. Early detection and remediation will contribute significantly to maintaining a safe, secure supply to market during these trying times. – Barile
  2. A full downstream plan. Food processors should require assurance from their suppliers that they have a plan in place to address pests throughout the entire production flow — i.e., considering all the points at which pests may infest the goods or hitchhike on product as it progresses from raw material into finished product, then is packaged and delivered to the customer. Products also should be staged, palletized, wrapped, and shipped in ways that minimize pest access. – Mann
  3. HACCP. Just as the food processor or manufacturer adheres to a strict HACCP food safety and risk assessment plan, suppliers of goods must adhere to their own HACCP programs congruent with their food production customers. In light of the pandemic, ingredient and incoming goods suppliers, like their food production customers, may have to rework their entire HACCP plans to identify new health threats, determine corrective actions, and most importantly, establish procedures that fit the “new normal” food production process and ensure public safety, high quality, and economic viability. – Sundnas
  4. Commitment. Because the critical link between a supplier’s shipment and the introduction of a pest problem can be underestimated, it is important that food processors partner with suppliers that mirror their own food safety culture and commitment to pest prevention. That commitment must be emphasized at the supplier’s facility and during shipments in transit. Suppliers should allow for examination of pest management records, especially if there has been a case of suspected infested product shipments. If there has been an issue where it is believed that substandard product could have been shipped, the supplier must be up-front with the processor in notifying them of the issue. Prompt notification can help the processor take quick action to reduce the impact of a pest introduction. – Hottel
  5. Documentation. Food processors should require that their suppliers have a documented pest management program that includes both control measures and monitoring, i.e. an integrated pest management (IPM) program. It is important to remember that food ingredients are not the only materials that can bring in an infestation. Packaging materials such as corrugate can also be a source of incoming infestation. – Spragins
  6. Risk-based IPM. Verify that suppliers have an IPM program and their contracted or in-house pest managers are using a risk-based method, including thorough pheromone-based insect monitoring. Preventing pests from infesting ingredients and incoming goods starts with preventing risk, measuring risk, then eliminating the risks of pests coming into contact with food products. – Trécé Market Manager and PCO James Miller

What will food facilities need to do to deal with the pandemic-induced pest environment?

  1. Stay flexible. As business conditions change throughout the pandemic recovery, so will the patterns of human activity, and the flow of food and food waste, creating new conditions for pests to exploit. Companies must be flexible and reassess their ever-changing pest management needs. Pest management is always situational, and the situation now is constantly changing. – Mann
  2. Assess and embrace change. Post- pandemic, all will have to juggle business recovery with the return to pre-crisis production levels. A new reality of risk mitigation will continue if COVID-19 remains a threat. Pests will continue to pose the same threats to food safety and security as pre-crisis, but the pest management program will have to be reviewed as the changing food safety and security plan evolves. Both quality assurance managers and pest management providers will have to take the initiative to embrace operational changes to accommodate pest management services. This is a good opportunity for service providers and food facilities to move forward with their IPM programs and consider the value of implementing new Internet of Things (IoT) tools, such as remote monitoring. – Barile
  3. Enhance sanitation and disinfection. It is very likely that all food facilities will be mandated to have enhanced levels of sanitation with emphasis on disinfection, for not only production and preparation areas, but public areas as well. New levels of “biosecurity” aimed at essential employees, restrooms, locker rooms, and dining/break areas will be established. PMPs, who may now be more properly defined as “First Responders of Public Health,” can provide this enhanced level of service as a newly defined program that must consider specific products, equipment, and procedures to accomplish the task. – Sundnas
  4. Supplement sanitation. In challenging times, pest management may be the furthest thing from the minds of business owners or managers. While there is a lot of focus on disinfection, pest management shouldn’t be overlooked, as the steps taken for a typical disinfection of hard surfaces contacted frequently by people won’t necessarily do anything to mitigate pests. These are two separate exercises in most respects. – Spragins
  5. Prevent future issues. While the pandemic may have caused delays in inspections, sanitation programs, and maintenance frequencies, facilities should be aware of what was allowed to take a back burner during the pandemic and make plans to get back to normal and prevent future issues. Regarding ramped-up production post-pandemic, take care to ensure you are receiving clean, unadulterated products. Your suppliers may have relaxed certain protocols, so you should set up additional inspections, site visits, and/or conference calls to discuss what happened during the pandemic and how they dealt with the issues presented. Make sure that suppliers verify that they have maintained adequate insect monitoring and management procedures. – Miller
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.