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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, April/May 2005

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Infestations of rodents, cockroaches and ants are apt to "bug" American businesses in 2005. Here are some observations about trends for remainder of the year.

by Christian Nansen, PhD

Watch out, you’re surrounded! Relentless invaders are on the attack, and the battlefield may be your business. Infestations of rodents, bed bugs and cockroaches are on the rise this year and are more apt to “bug” American businesses in 2005. Following are observations about trends for 2005 from the Steritech Group, Inc. (Charlotte, N.C.), a provider of pest control services.

“Rodents, ants and cockroaches are perennial pests,” says Mike Potter, professor and Urban Entomologist at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture. “They are certainties of life; but that does not mean businesses must tolerate pests inside their establishments. Business owners would do well to partner with pest management professionals.”

Mice can transmit several potentially serious diseases, including the sometimes fatal Hanta Virus. That illness causes dizziness, nausea, fatigue, dry cough, headaches and, ultimately, can lead to respiratory failure.

Rodents: Weapons of Mass Destruction

Rodents can create havoc in a business. They contaminate food, destroy equipment and structures and are vectors of diseases and food poisoning microorganisms. This year, rodents may be even more prevalent than usual due to the 2004 cicada cycle. Rodents feed heavily on this abundant food source during the summer and fall, which will likely increased both their reproduction rate and their survival over the winter.

Mice can transmit several potentially serious diseases, including the sometimes fatal Hanta virus. That illness causes dizziness, nausea, fatigue, dry cough, headaches and, ultimately, can lead to respiratory failure. Hanta virus first appeared in the U.S. in 1993 in New Mexico but has since been identified in at least 30 states. Anyone working in spaces where mice are active could be at risk for contracting this disease, especially those who work regularly in enclosed spaces that may be closed seasonally and reopened after the winter. This includes maintenance workers, housekeepers, construction and utility workers.

Fire Ants: Unfriendly Fire

“Mild winters, such as those experienced by some areas in 2004, favor the northward spread of fire ants,” says Dr. Ed Vargo, associate professor of Entomology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. “Colder weather limits the spread of fire ants.”

Fire ants first entered the U.S. via ships at the port in Alabama in the early 1900s. They now infest at least 13 southern and western states – Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas – and continue to migrate aggressively northward, having been reported as far north as Maryland and Ohio. Southern states that enjoyed mild winters, watch out!

When a fire ant mound is disturbed, the colony becomes very aggressive and attacks humans and animals nearby. One sting triggers the other ants to also attack, causing a burning sensation (hence, the name fire ants). Some people are allergic to fire ant stings. For these people, a fire ant attack can be lethal.

Fire ants pose an increased danger in sensitive environments, such as healthcare establishments, retirement facilities and day care centers. Establishments such as these should hire a pest management professional to develop a strategic elimination plan.

For most food manufacturing environments, the presence of fire ants is more of a liability issue than a health concern. However, fire ant workers are attracted to oily or greasy foods which they can carry back to the mound and distribute to other ants 1. When this attraction leads them indoors, these ants have the potential to become a contamination concern as well.

Various other ant species are also expected to migrate farther north this year. Ghost ants and white-footed ants, which are particularly attracted to sweets, can be big nuisances to any food establishment and are difficult to manage without professional help.

Stealth Invaders

Hotels and motels should stay on the lookout for bedbug infestations. The long insects hide in mattresses, wallpaper and along baseboards. They are bloodsuckers that can leave itchy and painful, but not otherwise dangerous, bites.

You can eliminate these bugs by hiring a professional with experience in eliminating bedbug infestations, as recommended by both Steritech and The National Pest Management Association, the industry’s trade association.

Activity of German cockroaches specifically is expected to be on the upswing. This species often inhabits restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets and other food establishments. A cockroach infestation can easily get out of hand, since they can reproduce up to two million offspring in a year under optimal conditions.

In food processing environments, German cockroaches are often found in areas that remain undisturbed, such as storage or confined space areas. Left unchecked, a population can quickly grow in size and spill over into open areas, putting your product at risk.

What You Should Know

As more has been learned about pest biology, pesticide resistance and aversion, pest management methods have also evolved. No longer are traditional approaches such as “spraying” or “fogging” the foundation of a pest management program. Rather, modern pest management programs are built around a variety of complementary tactics, such as early-detection of insect pests through monitoring, thorough inspection for detection of harborage sites, targeted treatments that pose little risk to the environment or people, and structural repairs that exclude invasive pests from entering the facility.

Such modern pest prevention programs rely on a strong partnership and communication between the client and the pest management technician. The level of communication between a facility’s designated contact and a pest management technician is often indicative of a program’s success. Check with your employees on the reporting, documentation and one-on-one contact they receive from their pest management professional. Reports should include details of the service, note any chemicals applied, list opportunities for improvement and include detailed sanitation and structural recommendations. Your contacts should be in regular communication with their pest management technician.

Documentation at the facility should include copies of any reports, material safety data sheets (MSDS) on products currently being used at the facility, maps of service areas and any other pertinent information. If you don’t see these things, consider looking for a new pest management partner. In your search, ask candidates for a proposal detailing the job, frequency of visits, response times, applicable guarantees, types and quality of service reporting, and above all, make sure that the company knows what it takes to outsmart pests in your facility.

It is helpful when personnel in the facility understand what is required in terms of sanitation, operational procedures and structural repairs for the program to be successful. Once the role of each partner in the program has been established, knowledge about the pest’s biology can be used to eliminate the conditions that enabled the pest to become established in the first place. See Table 1 for some tips on stopping pests before they become a problem.

Despite warming temperatures and pest trends, you can safeguard your facility against pests. Investing appropriate resources in training, maintenance and a high-quality company will help to reduce your costs in the long run, protect you from costly shutdowns and recalls and, most importantly, ensure that the safest possible food is being produced at your facility.


  1. Nathan Riggs, The ABC's of Fire Ants and Their Management, Department of Entomology, Texas A&M University, 2002,

Christian Nansen, Ph.D. , is technical director of The Steritech Group, Inc. ( Charlotte , N.C. ). Reach him at



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