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How to tackle stored product insects with expertise and data insights

Stored product insects (SPIs) are the most costly pests to food businesses and destroy or contaminate a significant proportion of the world’s food supplies. Even in a developed country such as the US, SPIs damage up to 10% of food supplies and in developing countries a much higher proportion.

As food supply chains have become globalised and more complex, the risks of pests moving around the world and between suppliers have increased. SPIs are a threat at all stages of the supply chain and even to many types of packaged foods. In this period of COVID-19 precautions, with lockdowns and food left in storage, supplies being delayed and less human presence to detect SPIs, the threat of SPIs is even greater. This threat adds to the pressures on supply chains worldwide caused by the pandemic.

Food businesses have to be proactive in preventing and controlling pests. Pests can cause an issue at any time and it means you have to have systems in place to monitor and prevent them as standard practice. In a survey of decision-makers in food businesses conducted in 2019, 56% said that pests would have one of the biggest impacts on their business in the next five years.

Now with new risks to businesses caused by COVID-19, it’s more important to take measures against SPIs. This means that you have to be “always on” to prevent these pests from damaging your business.

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The problem with SPIs

Picture of a SPI

Unlike other food pests, stored product insects live and breed in the food they damage, which results in the food being contaminated with all insect life stages – eggs, larvae, pupae, adults and also their shed skin and faeces. These pests include the granary weevil, confused flour beetle, cigarette beetle, Indian meal moth, cheese skipper, and booklouse. SPIs are not subject to seasonal weather changes and breeding cycles as much as other pests because the food in supply chains is stored indoors, often in a controlled environment. SPIs can be regarded as “always on”, which means infestations can occur at any time.

When SPIs are present in food, they’re moved around by trade as the food is shipped along supply chains. Food is susceptible at all stages from farm to table. While food is in storage, SPIs consume some of the food, damage a larger quantity of the product, which reduces the quality, change the taste and encourage mould growth, including those that produce toxins. Body parts of some insects can cause allergenic reactions in consumers, resulting in gastric illnesses such as ulcerative colitis.

SPIs breed rapidly and can cause huge losses to a business. An infestation can change the properties of ingredients and cause them to cake in a production line. This can jam machinery, potentially causing damage and downtime for the production process, which results in financial loss.

SPIs are a symptom of a condition

Picture of food storage where SPIs live

The presence of SPIs is a symptom of a problem. This is often caused by a failure to implement basic sanitation practices, such as inspecting incoming food deliveries, rotating stock or keeping storage and production areas clean. Your businesses premises could be giving them the perfect place to shelter, eat and breed.

SPIs live in a world of odours and have evolved highly tuned senses to detect and find food sources. Even packaged food is not safe. One tiny hole or bad seal in a packet can give off sufficient odour to attract SPIs. Some species – such as the larvae of some moths and adults and larvae of some beetles – can even bore through packaging such as card, paper and plastic film.

While stored product insects lack the intelligence of humans or even rodents, they overcome obstacles to accessing foods with their persistence, reproductive capacity, numbers, size and overall ability to survive. Human food supply chains provide many golden opportunities for SPIs to feed and breed in perfect environments.

The first step food businesses should take is to have effective sanitation procedures. These include educating staff and implementing thorough cleaning regimes for all parts of production and storage facilities, including waste disposal areas. Small, hidden places that gather food particles, such as in and around machinery and shelving, are havens for insect pests and must be targeted in cleaning regimes.

Using data intelligently

Rentokil scientists using data to provide pest control solutions for SPIs

When there is an infestation, it’s essential to identify the SPIs, analyse the problem to understand why they are there and to design a strategy to eliminate them. The food industry is moving away from prescriptive pest management practices towards customised pest-control programmes based on signs and trends in a particular facility, making intelligent use of data to understand the situation at each site.

Rentokil has been using digitised pest data for many years, capturing technician reports on mobile devices and storing them in central computer systems. In addition to those records, connected devices are automatically transmitting data on pest activity.

All records collected from customers around the world are stored in a single cloud system and can be analysed using AI to extract more insights on pest trends on a global, regional, customer or single site scale. There are over 10 billion records with 9 million added per day, providing a vast resource from which to extract data insights. This data can be accessed and analysed by our experts remotely, without them having to visit the site, which reduces the disruption of a customer’s business and removes potential infection risks during the pandemic.

Analysis of the data shows that SPIs are different from other pests such as rodents and flying insects, which show seasonal behaviour and have a peak of activity in the summer time when temperatures are favourable and food supplies are abundant. SPIs are not so affected by seasonal temperature cycles, so they’re a continuous threat to food supplies throughout the year – they are always on.

The most common pests found in customer premises worldwide are the cigarette beetle (Lasioderma serricorne), which is present in over 45% of customer sites, the Indian meal moth (Plodia interpunctella), and Mediterranean flour moth (Anagasta kuehniella). The data can also track SPIs through the food supply chain and shows food and beverage processing sites have, by far, the largest occurrences of SPIs, followed by warehousing and storage businesses.

Statistics around SPIs around the globe

The data also allows us to drill further down to a customer site and see the hotspots in an individual facility and how infestations change over time. This can identify exactly where controls are needed at specific spots in a building and means the local technicians can put in place targeted, more effective pest control and preventative measures in these hotspots.

A smart solution

Rentokil technician providing a solution for SPIs

Stored product insects are different from other food pests as they’re a constant, year-round threat by eating, breeding and damaging raw and processed food supplies stored indoors. They are “always on”. In this era of business uncertainty, they’re a greater threat to foods that may be stored for longer periods due to COVID-19 lockdowns that restrict human presence and business operations.

Businesses also have to be always on. They need to ensure they have strict checks and controls and sanitation procedures in place – otherwise they’re giving SPIs the freedom to infest and cause harm to the business. Data analytics empowers our experts and technicians with a deeper understanding of where the pest risks are in a business and how to overcome them.

So expertise in SPI biology that’s combined with technology, data and insights enables the creation of highly customised pest management programmes that ensure businesses are better prepared to combat the smallest pest but biggest threat to food safety.

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