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Birds: A Food Safety Threat for Food Plants

By Shannon Sked, Manager Specialty Services, Western Pest Services & No Fly Zone

Not all businesses view birds as a threat, but the simple fact is that they can be. And though a pest for facilities and businesses of all types, birds are particularly concerning for food plants where food safety is imperative. Today, health regulations for food warehouses and processing facilities are stricter than ever and with the anticipated regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act, that trend will continue. So successful bird control is essential.

An Overlooked Food Safety Threat

From a pest control provider’s standpoint, it’s important to understand that often, food plant customers are not as educated about pest birds and bird control as they are about other pests like rodents and insects. Birds are less of an “infesting” pest, which means they can be perceived as less of a threat.  In particular, threats from bird pressure can often come from the exterior, which can be easily overlooked.

Another key factor that plays into the customer’s perception is that birds have a much more positive public image than rodents or cockroaches – after all, bird watching is a favorable past-time for people around the world and birds are a part of the pet market. This not only plays into perceptions that birds are less of a threat, but also means bird control can be a sensitive topic from a public relations stand point; some facilities may be extra conscience about how the public views their bird control efforts.

Despite your customer’s perceptions, bird control is not an issue to take lightly. When birds make their way indoors or are on the exterior of a food plant, the health concerns are immense. Birds can contaminate food products, cause failed inspections/audits, cause facilities to shut down and potentially spread dangerous diseases to consumers, not to mention food plant employees. Birds can also carry dangerous disease-causing bacteria, including Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and Cryptococcus. When droppings containing these microbes come in contact with food or food preparation surfaces, they can lead to food borne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3,000 Americans die of food borne illness each year.

Several big news headlines over the years have involved food facilities with bird problems, including a 2009 incident at a Texas peanut plant. The facility ceased production and its owner, the Peanut Corporation of America, eventually filed for bankruptcy after state officials discovered unsanitary conditions and product contamination related to bird and rodent activity.  More recently, a New York food plant citation involving subpar bird management reached the press.

Bird Attractants at Food Plants

Birds are attracted to food plants because they provide birds with the three necessities they need to survive and thrive: food, water and shelter. There are plentiful food sources available at food plants and the smells from raw materials, the processing or final products can be an initial attractant. The facility and surrounding area, when not designed or managed properly, can also provide an ideal nesting and roosting environment. It’s important to complete a comprehensive inspection of the facility and its grounds to determine exactly what factors are attracting and creating a conducive environment for birds.

There are two areas of a food plant in particular that are likely to attract birds: the outside of the facility and the inside of the warehouse.

On the outside of a facility, landscaping can play a big role in bird control – an often overlooked factor. Take a look at the type of vegetation surrounding the property. Are there large trees suitable for roosting or nesting? Is there standing water on the grounds?  And does the plant façade or roof ledge create ideal conditions for harborage?

Facility design is another factor that plays into bird control and attracts birds. Pest birds will look to the structure of a facility for places to perch, nest or roost, so eliminating these areas is important. Try to examine the facility from the birds point of view – a “birds-eye view,” if you will – to identify conducive conditions. Go up on the roof. Look for any equipment, lighting structures, signs, eaves, awnings or louvers that may be suitable for bird activity. Also, look for standing water or leaking HVAC units that may supply drinking water. Finally, look for any holes, which may not only serve as an entry point for birds, but a source of contamination. Even the smallest roof leak can allow bird excrement to enter a facility and contaminate products.

In the warehouse, dock doors often provide easy entry for birds, serving as a gateway to shelter and food sources. Inside, elevated rafters provide ideal nesting sites that are difficult for humans to see and not easily reached. Roosting and nesting is unfortunately accompanied by droppings – quite literally – that fall from the rafters above onto food products or food storage areas, which can be a source of product contamination. Once inside, birds also have access to products and can peck open cartons and packaged food – another source of food contamination and damaged goods.

Once birds begin nesting, they are incredibly dedicated to a site, so the most effective bird control programs work to prevent birds from the start by removing all the conditions that attract them. Work closely with the plant staff to eliminate the conducive conditions in and around their facility and uphold a strict maintenance routine to help prevent birds from negatively affecting food safety at food plants.

Shannon Sked is a Specialty Services Manager and Board Certified Entomologist with Western Pest Services, a New-Jersey based pest management company serving residential and commercial customers throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, and No Fly Zone, a division of Western Pest Services providing bird exclusion, bird control, and bird deterrent services.