Food Businesses and the Menace of Food Pests (Part I)

I once travelled to one of the African countries some years back and stayed at a hotel, which is well respected. The restaurant that morning was filled with many tourists and the aroma of the food being served for breakfast almost assuaged my hunger. What was to be a great breakfast experience turned into something else. I went round picking what I loved best and sat to enjoy but wait a minute! Right there in my food was this insect that looked like a roach! I swallowed as if my saliva was enough for the morning. I called one of the waiters, and showed this to him and with the speed of light the food was whisked away, followed by sincere apologies from the manager on duty.

I believe that, most of you reading this article must have gone through one, two or more incidents of pests in your food. Whilst majority of the cases would have involved dead pests, I have encountered pests crawl out of food on some occasions.

Food Pests
A food pest is an animal, insect or bird which lives in or on man’s food and is noxious, destructive or troublesome. There are a host of them but the most common on our food premises include; houseflies, cockroaches (both German and Oriental), rodents such as mice and rats, wall geckos and lizards especially in open kitchens. There is another group known as the Psocids and they include the Flour beetle, Larder beetle, Grain weevil, Mill moth, Flour moth, Mites, Pharaoh’s ant, Silver fish etc.

Apart from the fact that these pests are obnoxious, there is a bigger problem associated with their presence in your food. Flies and rodents are often associated with food poisoning organisms. Cockroaches live in underground sewers and gutters and they carry on their wings and legs food pathogens that they transfer to food, in restaurant and hotel kitchens if they are allowed to thrive. Houseflies are in the same category. They sit on garbage, faeces and any decaying matter and transfer pathogenic bacteria onto your food, utensils and other food surfaces such as cutting boards, work surfaces, knives and raw materials for various cuisines. It is common knowledge that Cholera caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae is transmitted when flies pick these organisms from faecal matter and transfer them onto our food.

Faecal pellets and urine from rodents are poisonous and hence contamination of work surfaces and utensils in such kitchens has grave consequences on eventual customers.

Conditions for pest ingress
Pests are living organisms and hence require food, shelter and security. The provision of these three basic needs gives them the right environment to increase in numbers and remain. Commercial kitchens which are only money conscious and would not bother to clean would normally find a fully-fledged family of rodents in sections of their kitchens.

Apart from houseflies, most of these pests are nocturnal, meaning they are primarily active at night rather than during daylight hours. They breed in obscure corners, under pallets, cupboards, washing areas especially under sinks etc. Lack of food hygiene practices in general, brings about a population explosion of pests. Starting from the storeroom, most kitchens lump all raw materials together and do not practice FIFO (First in First out). Hence a particular stock of raw materials stays at one section in the storeroom for too long creating a safe haven for rodents.

Dirty and soiled plates left overnight after closing the restaurant become a source of attraction for pests. In the night, cockroaches and rodents come to feed on them contaminating surfaces, raw food and even utensils that have already been cleaned and disinfected. Some kitchens leave the transient garbage inside the kitchen or very close to the kitchen until the following morning, attracting pests into the premises. It is important to mention that, for restaurants, hotels and catering facilities closer to forests and bushes, the increase in the population of rodents attract poisonous snakes to the premises. These snakes go after the rodents and may end up finding permanent shelter on the premises.

Reasons for Control
There are very important reasons why pests must be controlled, and I believe you must have already picked some from what you’ve read so far. Pests must be controlled to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses. There are pathogenic bacteria which live in sewages, on faecal matter and obscure places in and around the food premises. Pests such as rodents, cockroaches and houseflies serve as vehicles for these pathogens transferring them onto plates, cutlery, cooking pots and prepared food.

The second important reason for control emanates from the damage these pests cause to food and property. Rodents especially gnaw at the structure including wooden panels, cables, pipes etc. They can even be responsible for kitchen fires when they gnaw at gas tubes and electrical cables.

Thirdly, they are also responsible for food loss. They accelerate spoilage of food by eating portions of raw and cooked food. On countless occasions, powdered products are spilled in the kitchen due to the activities of rodents and cockroaches. In some instances, big bowls of water might need to be discarded when pests accidentally jump into them wasting larger volumes of water in the process.

The fourth point is the fact that, they can be responsible for business collapse. Numerous customer complaints come up if pests are not properly controlled. In the example I gave above, I am most certain I’ll not be lodging at this hotel anytime I visit that country.

The more customers complain about pests in their food or the siting of pest on your premises, the more word go round about the lack of pest control on your premises. You may soon shut down for loss of customers. Regulatory Authorities like the FDA and Metropolitan Assembly might close your business down if there is enough evidence of overwhelming pest activity on your premises.

Last but not least, you may lose your cherished and hardworking staff, who may not feel comfortable working in a pest-infested environment based on their strict standards of personal and food hygiene.

I will come your way with part II of this important subject where we would look at how to detect activities of pests on your premises and eradication of pests through food hygiene activities and integrated pest management.

Johnson Opoku-Boateng is the Executive Director & Lead Consultant, QA CONSULT (Consultants and Trainers in Quality/Safety Management, Manufacturing Excellence and Food Safety) and can be reached on +233209996002, email: johnson@qaconsultgh.com.

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