In one restaurant inspection, Western Pest Services technician specialist Hope Bowman discovered the source of a fruit fly infestation — sweet potatoes and onions.
The germ-carrying insects had infected a couple of boxes of the vegetables that had been improperly stored on the floor in the kitchen rather than in the restaurant’s refrigerated walk-in as they should have been.
“Unfortunately, we see contaminated product all the time,” says technician specialist Jennifer Brumfield, a colleague of Bowman at the Parsippany, New Jersey-based pest control company.
In the never-ending struggle to keep restaurants pest-free, proper food storage is as critical as good sanitation practices and building maintenance, experts say. Beyond just being unsightly, pests are carriers of pathogens that can make customers sick, from Salmonella and Listeria to trichinosis and E. coli.
Pests are looking for food and shelter so it is imperative for foodservice operators to deny them both by properly storing food, say Brumfield and Bowman. Here are some of the contributors to poor food storage to monitor in your restaurant.
Not enough space
Foodservice operations that have a pervasive problem with food storage often are those that occupy physical sites containing small storerooms or limited space, says Brumfield. It is not uncommon to find containers stacked up on the floor in those places. As a result, older products can get blocked in and forgotten behind boxes of newer products. This often allows mice and other pests to get into the hidden food.
“People may not realize they have a mouse problem in dry storage,” Bowman says. “We will see a hole in the wall and know they are getting into food.”
Not keeping track of inventory before ordering more food can also lead to excess and spoilage. Pests — and flies in particular — are quickly attracted to spoiled food.
“We have seen rotten lettuce infested with flies next to containers of fresh lettuce,” Bowman says.
In other instances, operators in need of more storage space sometimes will stack good product on top of bad. Placing a box of fresh onions on top of old onions and only drawing from the top of the box contributes to fruit fly infestations, Brumfield says.
“First in and first out — always practice that rule,” she says.
Another problem arises when boxes of onions and sweet potatoes are stored at room temperature in the back of the house rather than in the walk-in cooler.
Operators need to be vigilant — particularly when it comes to storing foods at the right temperature, says Brumfield.
“This is a problem that makes me cringe,” she says. “We’ve seen raw meat stored out in the open and things that should be refrigerated that are not being refrigerated.”
Another common problem is storing products in their original packaging. Paper and cloth bags and cardboard are vulnerable to cockroaches and rodents, while mice can gnaw their way into bags of dry storage goods and leave their droppings around the area. Meanwhile, roaches like to hide in the tiny spaces of corrugated cardboard.
Experts advise foodservice operators to take their products out of the original containers and store them in hard plastic containers with lids that seal tightly. Employees should routinely monitor containers to make sure lids are on tight.
Airtight containers are just as important for products stored in refrigerators and freezers, as roaches are known to exist in cold temperatures. They often will hide in the mechanism that houses the refrigeration, Brumfield says.
Operators should also take the time to inspect dry goods or produce when they remove them from original packaging and repackage them in better containers. Make sure there is no contamination or signs of pests.
Sometimes it's not the restaurateur's fault. Pests can already be inside packaged food when it’s delivered from a store or a supplier's warehouse, Bowman says. Indian meal moths and several types of stored product beetles such as flour beetles and cigarette beetles can be found in bags of flour, sugar or rice.
In addition to throwing out all cardboard boxes and other food packaging, operators also need to quickly discard infected food as soon as they are aware of it.
“If they notice webbing or larva, dispose of the product completely,” Brumfield says. “Get rid of it instead of trying to salvage it.”
Ask your pest control partner to help inspect your restaurant for any food storage issues that may lead to pest problems. A licensed professional can identify potential risks and help you address concerns.