Veena Ramachandran discusses the risks posed by infestation
The battle for dominance that insects have lodged on our food has been raging on for decades and even unopened packs of food have been infested, taking consumers by surprise and making them question the checks carried out during manufacture and packaging. One such consumer in Dorset started preparing dinner for her daughters but what she saw coming out with the fusilli made her throw the entire pack of pasta in the bin and seal up the bag that had not been opened before. Hundreds of black bugs were crawling inside the pack of pasta. The bugs were weevils, a type of beetle known to be attracted to dry foods such as nuts, seeds, cereals, etc. This incident isn’t unusual. Many a consumer has opened a box of cereal or a bag of flour and discovered a colony of flour beetles or moths. Sadly, stored grains aren’t the only target. The pests have been known to devour many types of stored food and contaminate much more than they eat. Because of their high reproductive potential, a small infestation can lead to an entire stock of stored products turning to dust. An incident was reported recently at the Marketing Organisation for Farmers (MOF) facility in Chachoengsao’s Phanom Sarakham district of Thailand wherein a substantial portion of rice stored had deteriorated and been eaten by weevils, causing a loss of around 12 billion Euros.
The devastating effects of these pests may range from reduced grain weight, odour and mold to severe allergic reactions and infections of the digestive tract. The worst part is that the infestation can easily move to and from storage sites. Insects may enter through openings in the packaging material or bore holes into the storage bags. Insects are not the only creatures causing trouble for the packaging industry. Rodents are notorious mischief-makers that contaminate stored foods with their faeces, urine, and hairs. For them, storage areas are food haven and there is a high possibility of disease transmission. These rodents may enter through openings formed as a result of their chewing habit, in the form of rips, tears, or as punctures resulting from improper handling of the packaged product. I read an article recently, regarding an incident in 2002 wherein a cold storage facility in Chicago, that stored around 14 million pounds of meat, poultry and several million pounds of butter, fish, nuts and other food, was found infested with rats.
The rats swam into the storage facility from the sewer and tore through the packaging material, devouring and contaminating. As millions of tons of food is prepared, processed, canned or stored around the world, some mishaps are bound to happen, even with the most modern technology and equipment. In a surprisingly short time, these pests can ruin an inventory and cost food and packaging businesses huge amounts of money in the control of the infestation. The loss of food and grains itself will cause a major loss of revenue for the manufacturer or distributer. The net value of losses in storage of packaged goods in the United States has been placed at more than $200 million annually. One method for combating the attack of these creatures is using polymer packaging materials incorporated with pesticides. However, controlling stored product pests with pesticides is extremely dangerous and generally not recommended owing to proximity of the food with potentially harmful chemicals. To combat insect and rodent infestation in packaged products, while at the same time not affecting the food or grains in the package in any way, the use of non-toxic and non-hazardous insect and rodent repellents are recommended. Sometimes these can be incorporated into the packaging film during processing.