Pest Control: Past and Present

PART IV FoodTech: Tools That Changed the Industry

In today’s climate of heightened food safety scrutiny, it is hard to believe that not so long ago, attitudes about what constituted a hygienic processing environment were very different. This is especially true for pest management practices. Only a little more than 70 years have passed since Congress enacted the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 (FD&C Act), and a little more than 100 years ago, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle opened America’s eyes to what was happening in meat packing plants.

While it was revolutionary at the time, the FD&C Act did not offer concrete recommendations on how a plant should be kept sanitary. The word “may” is peppered throughout the act, leaving what constitutes food “adulteration” open to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) auditors’ interpretations. Unfortunately, at the time the law was enacted, the FDA would only investigate a plant in response to a complaint.

Just as it does now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the 1930s oversaw only meat and poultry processing plants and dictated only which pesticides should be used, not how to prevent pests as today’s government regulators prefer. Approved pesticides and a cursory overview of the pest control program varied from inspector to inspector. Without regular FDA inspections, plant employees were left to decide for themselves whether or not food was fit for consumption and if 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, because pests are considered a contaminant:

“A food shall be deemed to be adulterated if … it has been prepared, packed, or held under conditions whereby 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 did not. Big names in the food processing industry were willing to allocate the necessary funds to control pests, recognizing that it protected their brands by ensuring product integrity, while some smaller operators simply aimed for the least expensive pest control service.

Annual fumigations sometimes took the place of a proactive sanitation program.

Annual fumigations sometimes took the place of a proactive sanitation program.

Use Any Means Necessary

But the two different customers shared one common trait: Both believed that it was entirely the pest control professional’s responsibility to get rid of pests. They did not view pest management as a partnership in which the plant’s sanitation and facility maintenance functions should each play a part in pest prevention. Instead, many manufacturers relied on toxic fumigants such as methyl bromide or aluminum phosphide. Unfortunately, annual fumigation of facilities and/or commodities became a substitute for ongoing sanitation and preventive pest control.

Today, fumigations are used only in extreme cases, when other prevention and treatment methods have failed. The Environmental Protection Agency has removed many pesticides, including methyl bromide, from the approved list, with some quarantine exemptions. Because of these pesticide restrictions and the reduction of fumigations, integrated pest management (IPM) has become the food processing industry standard.

Everything Old Is New Again

While it might seem like IPM is a hot new buzzword in the pest management industry, it is actually a very old practice. In the past, IPM was used for practical reasons. As early as 2500 BC, Sumerians used 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 to plant dates to control pests. 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.

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