The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. While there are a number of factors that contribute to this public health problem, the sanitary condition of environments in which food is grown, prepared and stored is a critically important aspect of ensuring the safety of the food Americans eat.

There is no doubt that proper pest prevention and control has always been an important component of food safety, especially in food processing facilities that prepare and package refrigerated and frozen foods. However, as pest problems have been traced to some recent food contamination cases and with the implementation of the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA), it is more important than ever that facilities pay increased attention to the role of pest management in their overall operations programs.

Pest threats in refrigerated and frozen food facilities
Any facility that prepares, packages or stores food and food products in any capacity is a natural target for pests. Unlike dry goods facilities, refrigerated and frozen food plants have specific challenges in regard to pest management due to the processes food must go through prior to distribution.

From storing raw ingredients to cooking to freezing and storage, there are a number of opportunities where a product could become contaminated in the food production process as a result of poor plant sanitation. Despite the cooler temperatures involved in cold food plants, a number of pests like cockroaches, flies, beetles, ants and caterpillars have the ability to find ways into food products before the refrigeration and freezing processes. Additionally, rodents and cockroaches are very adept at finding heat sources in cold places, such as the heat emitted from refrigeration systems.

Pest infestations can lead to food contamination by introducing Salmonella or E.coli bacteria. In several recent frozen food recalls, the true cause of the contamination was never found, but a pest presence was considered a possible source. It’s important to note that Class I recalls, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies as those in which there is a reasonable probability that the use of or exposure to a volatile product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death can be extremely damaging to a company’s reputation and by extension its bottom line.

Cold food facilities must also be vigilant regarding the products that are coming into the plant to be cooked and packaged, as secondary suppliers play a crucial role in maintaining food safety.

Pest management and FSMA compliance
FSMA is a first of its kind legislative mandate, aimed at enhancing the safety of the U.S. food supply. The legislation, signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011, aims to ensure America’s food supply is safe by shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it. Originally, final rules were set for June 2015, but a recent agreement between the FDA and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Center for Environmental Health set a staggered schedule for the following regulations—preventative controls for human and animal food (Aug. 30, 2015); imported food and foreign suppliers and produce safety (Oct. 31, 2015); food transportation (March 31, 2016); and intentional adulteration of food (May 31, 2016). As a result of FSMA, the FDA has much more authority and oversight and will be more proactive in taking action against plants that violate regulations.

The first deadline regarding preventative controls is one of the biggest changes to current food safety laws. Food facilities, regardless of the product that is manufactured or processed, will be required to evaluate their operations, implement and monitor effective measures to prevent contamination and develop an action plan that can be implemented to counter the contamination. One of the best ways facilities can comply with this new rule is to implement a rigorous pest management program.

A strong pest management program should include regular inspections and reporting (at least once per month), proactive pest-proofing measures and an immediate action plan to put in place when faced with a potential infestation. Manufacturers and plant managers must choose the right pest professional to help them stay in compliance—a decision that cannot be made on price alone. It is important to have a solid understanding of the new FSMA regulations and pest infestation risks and fines. Decision makers should consult with several pest management companies with extensive experience in the food manufacturing arena before proceeding, and take all their programs and services into consideration.

The bottom line
The lack of pest management programs and inadequate programs can be a serious pitfall for food manufacturing facilities. All food facility operators should keep in mind that they have a stake in ensuring the safety of the food supply. It is for that reason that the food processing industry, pest management companies, regulatory agencies and researchers are cooperating more in order to minimize food system contamination through best practices and new solutions.

By implementing proper pest management programs to protect the public from the harmful effects of pests, food facilities play a critical role in ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply. Because of the penalties associated with FSMA non-compliance, it is vital for all refrigerated and frozen foods facilities—regardless of size—to employ a pest management program. It is far easier to prevent pest infestations and be a model in the industry than to scramble in response to a problem and try to salvage a company’s reputation. With increased FDA enforcement authority and higher fines, the consequences of a pest-related FSMA violation are simply too great to ignore.