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Pest Control Past and Present

The Changing Pest Control Landscape in the Food Processing Industry

By Zia Siddiqi, Ph.D., B.C.E., Director of Quality Systems, Orkin, LLC

In today’s world of heightened scrutiny on food safety, it’s hard to believe that not so long ago there were very different attitudes about what constituted a hygienic processing environment. This is especially true for pest management practices. It’s only been a little more than 70 years since Congress enacted the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and a little more than 100 years since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle opened America’s eyes to what was happening in meat packing plants at the turn of the twentieth century.

While it was revolutionary at the time, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 didn’t actually offer concrete recommendations on how a plant should be kept sanitary. The word “may” is peppered throughout the Act, leaving what constitutes food “adulteration” up to interpretation by the FDA auditor. Unfortunately, at the time the law was enacted, the FDA would only investigate a plant if a complaint was issued. As it does now, the USDA only oversaw meat and poultry processing plants, and even then only dictated which pesticides should be used rather than how to prevent pests – now the more favored approach of pest management in the eyes of government regulators. “Approved” pesticides and a cursory overview of the pest control program varied from inspector to inspector. Without regular FDA inspections, plants were left to interpret whether food was unfit for consumption or whether the production environment could compromise food safety. Even today, Section 402 (a) of the Act remains ambiguous. Section 402 (a) (4) particularly relates to pest management since pests are considered a contaminant:

“A food shall be deemed to be adulterated if…The food has been prepared, packed or held under conditions where it may have become contaminated with filth or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health.”

This ambiguity left pest control operators with two groups of customers – those who cared about pest management and those who didn’t. Big names in the food processing industry were willing to allocate the necessary funds to control pests, recognizing it helped protect their brands by ensuring the integrity of their products, while some smaller operators looked only to have the least expensive pest control service. But the two types of customers did share one common trait – they both believed that it was entirely the pest control professional’s responsibility to get rid of pests by any means necessary. They did not view pest management as a partnership in which the plant’s sanitation and facility maintenance functions each played a part in pest prevention. Instead, many manufacturers relied on fumigation of their facilities and/or commodities with toxic fumigants such as methyl bromide or aluminum phosphide. Unfortunately, an annual fumigation became a substitute for ongoing sanitation and preventive pest control.

Today, fumigations are only used in extreme cases where other prevention and treatment methods have failed. Many pesticides of the past, including methyl bromide, have been removed from the approved pesticides list by the EPA, except for some quarantine exemptions. Because of these pesticide restrictions and the reduction of fumigations, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has become the food processing industry standard.

While it might seem like IPM is still a hot, new buzzword in the pest management industry, it’s actually a very old practice. In the past, IPM was used for practical reasons. As early as 2500 BC, Sumerians were using sulfur compounds to control insects and mites. The first descriptions of cultural controls (i.e. behavioral changes) date back to 1500 BC when humans began manipulating planting dates as a means of pest control. In 13 BC the Romans implemented mechanical controls by building the first rat-proof granary. Though it was not called IPM then, these early pioneers were practicing IPM by manipulating their environment to protect their food sources from pests.

The term “Integrated Pest Management” has agricultural roots dating to the 1950s, when American farmers began to tackle insecticide overuse, which was making pests resistant to chemical control. There was also a secondary problem – once their natural enemies had been killed by an initial insecticide application, new pests would attack crops with the same effect. As IPM grew in agriculture, the concept migrated into structural pest management. In 1975, IPM was formulated into national policy when President Nixon directed federal agencies to take steps to advance the concept and application of IPM in all relevant sectors. In 1979, President Carter established an interagency IPM Coordinating Committee to ensure development and implementation of IPM practices.

Back in the food processing industry, another factor was leading to a more holistic approach to pest management – the start of independent food safety educational organizations. The American Institute of Baking, now AIB International, started as an educational agency teaching people in the baking industry. They set sanitation and food safety guidelines that eventually became the industry norm. Soon to follow were companies like ASI and Silliker, which looked at a plant’s sanitation and pest control practices.

While these shifts were happening across the food manufacturing industry, a pest control incident changed the way large food processors viewed pest control providers. One of the largest U.S. food manufacturers hired a pest control company that applied the wrong chemicals in their facility. They were forced to dispose of tons of product, losing significant revenue. The pest control company incurred legal penalties. Food processors began to see that choosing the lowest bidder wasn’t necessarily the best idea when it came to pest management.

After that incident, and with the increased presence of third-party auditors, food processors started to look more closely at prevention as a means to control pests. The professional pest control providers had always spoken to customers about monitoring and conducive conditions, but customers hadn’t necessarily paid full attention. Sometime after these changes started to take place, I recall inspecting a plant in Canada and finding holes in an exterior wall. The plant manager caught up with me when he heard I was going to write up the holes in my report. He had the maintenance guy fix the holes right in front of me and said, “Do you see any holes now?” It really showed me how things had changed – plants were now taking the IPM we had been preaching seriously.

Another big advancement has been the way food processors use rodenticides, even though the official rules have not changed. Today, if you read a rodenticide label, it can legally be used inside a building as long as it’s housed in a tamper resistant bait station and not accessible to non-target organisms. Years ago, rodenticide was used in open bait stations inside buildings, placed every 20 to 30 feet. That caused concern about cross-contamination because rodents could spread the rodenticide to food products. These days, I don’t know of a single food manufacturer that will allow rodenticide inside the plant.

Today, IPM is essentially the prevention and treatment of pest problems using all the tools at your disposal – not just chemicals. These tools may be biological, like planting marigolds to deter certain insects or using parasitic wasps to control flies; mechanical, which typically means sealing holes in walls and performing other pest exclusion work; or cultural, such as educating staff on sanitation procedures. Chemicals are not off-limits in IPM, but unnecessary use of chemicals is. When they are needed, chemicals must be selected carefully, using the least toxic, least volatile material that is suitable for the job, and applied to very targeted areas based on pest behavior. This has always been the case. What has changed is people’s motivation to implement IPM programs. In today’s world, reducing chemical usage as part of sustainability programs motivates businesses.

Fortunately, change has been for the better. The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), a non-profit organization whose food safety criteria has been adopted by major food retailers, has changed the game, kicking off another new era of chemical reduction and very specific IPM standards. IPM is no longer a nice-to-have for the big brands, but a must-have for all food processors who want to distribute their products to major retailers. Food processors now view pest management providers as partners in food safety rather than vendors who practice what the industry has long referred to as “spray and pray.” Food safety auditors now pore over pest management documentation to ensure all noted deficiencies have been corrected, while modern pest management professionals use electronic handheld devices to track data in real-time and analyze large data sets over time to see trends in pest activity – allowing even more targeted and effective pest management.

Food safety will always be an important topic. With increased globalization of our food sources, traceability will become even more important as retailers look to track every step in the supply chain from farm to fork. Pest management will evolve to encompass even more electronic data so all stakeholders can see what pest management steps have been taken – from the processor to the distributors to the retailers. Professionalism in the pest management industry will become even more important as food processors seek out well-trained and knowledgeable professionals to partner with them on comprehensive IPM programs.

Evaluate your pest management provider with the future in mind. Seek out a professional who is well-versed in the current food safety standards – particularly those that fall under GFSI. Ask about their training programs and if they’re familiar with Good Manufacturing Practices. Your pest management provider should be a partner rather than a vendor. Together you can help keep your products safe – protecting your customers, the end consumer and your company’s brand. A new century is around the corner. Are you ready?

Dr. Zia Siddiqi is Director of Quality Systems for Orkin. A board certified entomologist with more than 30 years in the industry, Dr. Siddiqi is an acknowledged leader in the field of pest management. For more information, e-mail or visit

Looking for help to prepare for your next third-party audit? Visit for tips from Orkin and NSF International.

Source: Food Quality Magazine


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