The coronavirus pandemic has turned so many aspects of businesses upside down; it is changing how companies approach and execute their strategy. The issue touches all aspects of business and operations, and in a brief Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Mike Edgett of Sage touches on just a few areas in which the future of food manufacturing looks different.
Food Safety Tech: How are food manufacturers and meat processors using AI and robotics to mitigate risks posed by COVID-19?
Mike Edgett: Many food manufacturers and meat processors have had to look to new technologies to account for the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of these measures have been vital in preventing further spread of the virus (or any virus/disease that may present itself in the future), they’ve also given many food manufacturers insight into how these technologies could have a longer-term impact on their operations.
For instance, the mindset that certain jobs needed to be manual have been reconsidered. Companies are embracing automation (e.g., the boning and chopping of meat in a meatpacking plant) to replace historically manual processes. While it may take a while for innovations like this to be incorporated fully, COVID-19 has certainly increased appetite amongst executives who are trying to avoid shutdowns and expedited the potential for future adoption.
FST: What sanitation procedures should be in place to minimize the spread of pathogens and viruses?
Edgett: In the post-COVID-19 era, manufacturers must expand their view of sanitation requirements. It is more than whether the processing equipment is clean. Companies must be diligent and critical of themselves at every juncture—especially when it comes to how staff and equipment are utilized.
While working from home wasn’t a common practice in the manufacturing industry prior to March 2020, it will be increasingly popular moving forward. Such a setup will allow for a less congested workplace, as well as more space and time for bolstered sanitation practices to take place. Now and in the future, third-party cleaning crews will be used onsite and for machinery on a daily basis, with many corporations also experimenting with new ways to maintain the highest cleanliness standards.
This includes the potential for UV sterilization (a tactic that is being experimented with across industries), new ways to sterilize airflow (which is particularly important in meatpacking plants, where stagnant air is the enemy) and the inclusion of robotics (which could be used overnight to avoid overlap with human employees). These all have the potential to minimize the spread of pathogens and, ultimately, all viruses that may arise.
FST: How is the food industry adjusting to the remote working environment?
Edgett: While the pandemic has changed the ways businesses and employees work across most industries, F&B manufacturers did face some unique challenges in shifting to a remote working environment.
Manufacturing as a whole has always relied on the work of humans, overseeing systems, machinery and technology to finalize production—but COVID-19 has changed who and how many people can be present in a plant at once. Naturally, at the start of the pandemic, this meant that schedules and shifts had to be altered, and certain portions of managerial oversight had to be completed virtually.
Of course, with employee and consumer safety of paramount concern, cleaning crews and sanitation practices have taken precedent, and have been woven effectively and efficiently into altered schedules.
While workers that are essential to the manufacturing process have been continuing to work in many facilities, there will likely be expanded and extended work-from-home policies for other functions within the F&B manufacturing industry moving forward. This will result in companies needed to embrace technology that can support this work environment.
FST: Can you briefly explain how traceability is playing an even larger role during the pandemic?
Edgett: The importance of complete traceability for food manufacturers has never been greater. While traceability is by no means a new concept, COVID-19 has not only made it the number one purchasing decision for your customers, but [it is also] a vital public health consideration.
The good news is that much of the industry recognizes this. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Sage and IDC, manufacturing executives said a key goal of theirs is to achieve 100% traceability over production and supply chain, which serves as a large part of their holistic digital mission.
Traceability was already a critical concern for most manufacturers—especially those with a younger customer base. However, the current environment has shone an even greater spotlight on the importance of having a complete picture of not only where our food comes from—but [also] the facilities and machinery used in its production. Major budget allocations will surely be directed toward traceability over the next 5–10 years.
As food processors and retailers work tirelessly to feed the public during the current global health pandemic, pests continue to work overtime to keep their food supply on track. Filth flies, cockroaches and rodents, in particular, pose a threat to the food supply chain, especially with concerns of the transmission of pathogens at an all-time high. The last thing your business needs is an avoidable food safety incident that threatens your reputation and bottom line.
When it comes to food safety, pathogen-spreading pests have no place in your facility and pose a major public health risk. Not only can these filthy pests become a nuisance within your facility, they can also contaminate your products and spread foodborne bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, which can cause illnesses.
Knowing what attracts these pests to your facility and the dangers they pose is important for effective removal. Let’s dive into the signs of cockroaches, filth flies and rodents, and the specific concerns they can cause.
Cockroaches seek four things that food processing facilities provide in abundance—food, shelter, proper temperatures and water. With the ability to squeeze through tiny gaps and cracks, these dirty pests enjoy crawling under equipment, in cabinets and through drains to find their next meal. Cockroaches can be found in and around almost any place within your facility. They’re capable of carrying harmful bacteria that they can spread from one location to another. Look out for droppings, cast skins or egg cases, which might signal a cockroach problem.
You may think these types of flies have no desire to be inside, but they are in fact happy to go wherever the conditions are right. The most common filth fly is the housefly. These winged pests can carry and spread more than 100 disease-causing pathogens including bacteria, fungi and viruses. These can cause illnesses such as cholera, dysentery and infantile diarrhea. Filth flies in your facility can lead to a major public health issue if your food becomes contaminated.
One of the filthiest pests around, rodents can contaminate your food supply, destroy or consume products and cause structural damage to your facility. Like cockroaches, mice and rats can fit through relatively small spaces to find food and water. With sightings on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ll want to keep an eye out for rodents near your food products. These mighty chewers pose a public health threat as they can transmit diseases such as hantavirus and lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM) via their urine and droppings.
The presence of these vermin in your facility threatens public health. Additionally, an infestation can slow down the supply chain by causing businesses to recall contaminated foods.
A rigorous sanitation routine is one of the most effective ways to proactively manage pests like cockroaches, rodents and filth flies. Regularly sanitizing and disinfecting your facility can help eliminate any pathogens left behind on hard surfaces and remove the attractants for which they search. While cleaning removes dirt and buildup, sanitization and disinfection kill bacteria and pathogens, reducing the risk of a food safety issue.
Including the following tips in your cleaning routine can help keep your products and reputation safe from harm.
Clean out drains routinely with an enzymatic cleaning solution that can break down the organic grime.
Disinfect high-touch hard surfaces with a proper and low-toxicity disinfectant to kill bacteria and pathogens that can cause food illnesses.
Move dumpsters away from your building to reduce flies being attracted to and then gaining easy entry into your facility.
Wipe spills as soon as they occur to prevent them from becoming a sticky paradise for flies and cockroaches.
Practice good hygiene in your work environment and ensure employees are washing their hands regularly and keeping break rooms free of trash and leftovers.
Implementing exclusion practices such as sealing cracks, gaps and holes in walls with a proper sealant can also help you keep pests out. Budget allowing, consider investing in insect light traps and mechanical traps to help reduce flying insects inside.
Communication with your suppliers and distributors is also important to ensure food safety. If your partners implement similar measures, you’re more likely to protect the public from harmful diseases. Furthermore, customers will continue to trust your business.
While following these tips can help reduce the chances of a pest infestation, it’s not always possible to keep pests and the pathogens they spread out of your food processing facility. Work with a trained pest control specialist to develop a customized prevention program for your business as each type of pest requires specific treatment. They can also help you schedule inspections to identify conditions in and around your facility that may attract flies, cockroaches and rodents, among other pests.
Various types of pest birds can impact food plant structures and facility surroundings. Even a single bird that finds its way into a food plant can trigger a host of concerns such as, failed audits, product contamination, plant closure, production stoppage, lost revenues, fines, structural damage, health hazards to occupants and fire hazards.
In most cases, a food plant operation has a bulletproof pest control plan; however, in most cases, birds are always an afterthought in most pest management plans. After inspecting and consulting numerous food plants, I hear the same story over and over: “I have a person in the warehouse that can chase them out” or, “are birds really a big deal?” or, “why do I have to be concerned about birds?” and on and on. Despite what you may think, birds are a big deal, and you should take them seriously!
Since food processing plants contain areas that have very sensitive environments, birds can introduce various adulterants and harmful contaminants. Birds can cause potential harm to humans due to foodborne illness.
Pest Bird Species
There are four main pest birds: Pigeon, Starling, Sparrow and Seagull. Each one of these birds can cause a host of concerns and issues for food processing facilities. Just one bird can cause catastrophic damage. In most cases, small pest birds such as Sparrows and Starlings can gain access into a facility through a variety of ways:
Damaged bumpers around truck bay loading dock doors.
Open doors (seems obvious, but I always find doors wide open during audits).
General building deficiencies.
Larger birds, such as Pigeons and Seagulls, typically cause more problems around the exterior of a facility on ledges, rooftops, HVAC units, loading docks and related areas.
In either case, these various types of pest birds can cause significant problems on the interior and exterior of food plants.
In most cases, facilities want to reduce as many conducive conditions as they can around and within the facility in a timely fashion. A conducive condition is one whereby due to a building condition, structural design, equipment operation, food or water source, or surrounding conditions (i.e., near a public landfill, raw materials mill or body of water) can attract pest birds to a facility. With each of these conditions, great care must be taken to reduce as many conducive conditions as possible.
Examples of Conducive Conditions
Loading docks/canopies with open beams and rafters
Pooling water (roof and landscaping)
Structural overhangs and ledges
Open access points
Landscaping (types of plantings)
Damaged truck bay bumpers
Gaps and opening around the structure
Doors with improper sealing
Employees feeding birds
Doors left open
All these conducive conditions, if left unresolved, can lead to significant bird problems. Reducing as many conducive conditions as possible will be the first step of any bird management program.
Bird Control Methods
From the start, your facility should have a bird management plan of action. For the most part, bird problems should not be left to be handled internally, unless your staff has been properly trained and has a bird management plan in place.
Most birds are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. However, Pigeons, Sparrows, and Starlings are considered non-migratory birds and are not protected under this Act. Even though these three bird species are not protected, control methods still need to be humane. More specifically, your bird control program must also comply with is the American Veterinary Medical Association (“AVMA”) Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals if this is the control method selected. The AVMA considers the House Sparrows, Feral Pigeon, and the Common Starling “Free-Ranging Wildlife.” And Free-Ranging Wildlife may only be humanely euthanized by specifically proscribed methodology.
In addition to the above-mentioned regulations, various regulations regarding the relocation of birds/nests may also apply. I also always recommend checking with local and state agencies to ensure that there are no local regulations that may apply. Bottom line: Don’t rely on untrained internal practices; one misstep could result in heavy financial fines and penalties.
Bird Management Strategies
First Line Defense
Stop any bird feeding around the facility immediately
Any bird management plan should have a clear policy prohibiting employees from feeding birds. Once birds have been accustomed to routine feeding, the birds will continue to return.
Eliminate Standing Water Sources
All standing or pooled water needs to be eliminated. Thus, routine roof inspections need to be conducted to ensure drains are working properly.
Landscape irrigation needs to be calibrated to ensure no puddling of water in areas of low sun exposure.
Proper Sanitation Practices
Ensure that dumpster lids are closed when not in use.
Trash removal frequency adequate.
Routine cleaning of trash receptacles.
Immediate removal of spilled food.
Eliminate Entry Points
Survey the facility to ensure that all holes are properly sealed.
• Around truck bay bumpers and doors
Exhaust vents are properly screened.
Windows are closed and have screens when in use.
The most appropriate bird control strategy will be determined based on the severity of the bird pressure. For example, if the bird pressure is high (birds have nested), then in most cases, you will only be able to use bird exclusion methods. Whereas, if the bird pressure is light to moderate (birds have not nested), bird deterrent methods can be used. This is an important distinction. Bird exclusion is physically changing the area to permanently exclude said pest birds. Whereas, bird deterrent devices inhibit birds from landing on treated areas.
Bird Deterrent Methods
After the previously mentioned first-line strategies have been implemented, the next step would be to install bird deterrent products (birds have not nested).
Electrified Shock Track
Sonic & Ultra Sonic Devices
Lasers and Optical Deterrents
Hazing & Misting Devices
Bird Exclusion Methods
If the birds have nested in or around the facility, the next step would be to install bird exclusion products (birds have nested).
Ledge Exclusion (AviAngle)
Architectural modifying structural
Aggressive Harvesting (Targeting)
The best prevention strategy is planning and knowledge. Conduct a bird audit and develop a bird management plan before birds get near or inside the facility. The key is to act quickly, as soon as an incident occurs. I find countless times when I am called in to consult or service a food plant, that the birds got into the facility and no one knew what to do, and as a result, the birds remained within the facility for an extended period, thus increasing the risk of exposure. It is always much easier to remove a bird when they are unfamiliar with their surroundings. Whereas, it is much more difficult to remove birds from a facility that has had a long-standing bird problem.
Once you have a plan, who oversees the bird management plan? Are thresholds determined and set for various areas of the facility? For example, a zero threshold in production areas? Threshold levels will be set based upon by location and sensitivity of the said location. What steps are going to be taken to remove the bird? For how long is each step conducted? These questions need to be answered and developed to stay ahead of bird problems.
Reduce as many conducive conditions as possible. The longer a conducive condition stays active, the more likely birds, as well as other wildlife or rodents, will be attracted to the site and find a way into the facility.
Pathogen Contamination & Hazards
Birds present a host of problems, whether they are inside or outside of a facility. Birds can roost by air vents, and the accumulation of bird feces can enter the facility air system. Bird droppings on walkways and related areas allow for the possibility of vectoring of said dropping when employees step on droppings. Thus, spreading fecal matter/spores and other contaminants to areas throughout the facility.
If birds are within the facility, droppings can spread on product lines, raw materials, stored products, equipment and more, thus, causing contamination. Because of a bird’s ability to fly, they are perfect creatures to spread various diseases, pathogens, ectoparasites and fungal materials. Diseases such as Histoplasmosis, Salmonella, Encephalitis, E-coli, Listeria, and more. Birds have been known to transmit more than 60 infectious diseases!
Besides the spread of potentially harmful contaminants throughout the facility, bird droppings and nesting materials can also create a host of additional problems:
The acidity in bird droppings can damage building finishes, façade signs, lighting and more.
Wet bird droppings can create a slip and fall hazard.
Bird nesting materials can create a fire hazard around façade signs, exit signs and light fixtures.
Bird nesting and debris can clog roof drains and cause roof leaks from standing water.
Introduction of ectoparasites into the facility such as bird mites, lice, fleas, ticks and more.
In summary, taking a proactive approach to bird control is the best practice. Reduce food, water and shelter sources (aka conducive conditions) promptly. Pest management programs need to implement a more in-depth section of the program for bird control. Like integrated pest management, bird control should be based upon an integrated method. Each facility will have its unique challenges. As such, each bird management plan needs to be tailored to the specific site. A well designed and balanced, integrated bird management program will provide long-term and cost-efficient bird control.
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