How Pest Threats Can Lead To Foodborne Illnesses

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By Jennifer Brumfield, Training and Technical Specialist, Western Pest Services

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in six people become ill from food consumed in the United States each year. Of those 48 million affected, 128,000 are hospitalized and over 3,000 ultimately die from foodborne diseases.

These statistics demonstrate that restaurants are often making life-or-death decisions with their sanitation policies, including their pest management practices. Indeed, disease-carrying pests can lead to many life-threatening foodborne illnesses, including Salmonella and Listeria.

By understanding pest threats and the contamination risks they pose, restaurants can provide a safer and healthier dining experience for both their customers and employees.

Pest Threats in Restaurants

The most common pests behind foodborne illnesses are flies, rodents and cockroaches. These three species carry dangerous microorganisms and pathogens that can cause severe illnesses when consumed by humans.

  • Flies: Multiple filth fly species, including fruit flies, house flies and blow flies, are attracted to the food odors and food residue generated by restaurant kitchens. Restaurants provide plenty of ideal areas for flies to feed including raw meats, sink drains and garbage bins. When they move from any of these bacteria laden surfaces to your customer’s meal, they carry over 100 varieties of disease-carrying bacteria with them. These dangerous microorganisms can include Salmonella, cholera, E. coli and parasitic warms and fungi.
  • Cockroaches: Spotting these six-legged insects in your restaurant can lead to far more damage than a bad Yelp review. Cockroaches are known to spread at least 33 varieties of bacteria, six kinds of parasitic worms and seven varieties of human pathogens, including Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. They can also trigger asthma attacks and other allergic reactions. Cockroaches are not direct vectors of disease, but instead spread illnesses through their droppings, saliva and vomit. Oftentimes, dangerous microorganisms attach themselves to cockroaches’ legs while these pests crawl through sewers, drains and trash bins.
  • Rodents: Rodents have the capability to spread more disease than both flies and cockroaches because of the frequency and volume of their excrement. In fact, mice can drop up to 70 fecal pellets each day, or 25,000 fecal pellets each year. These droppings are known to transmit numerous disease-causing pathogens, including Hantavirus and Salmonella. In addition, rodents carry ticks, fleas and lice, and are therefore also vectors for any diseases these parasites carry.

Pest Management: A Necessity for Illness Prevention

The presence of pests, both dead and alive, and what they leave behind (e.g. excrement and nesting materials) pose a significant health threat to diners and employees. By implementing an integrated pest management (IPM) program, your restaurant team and pest management provider can work together to proactively prevent pest threats.

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Proper sanitation is an essential element of any successful IPM strategy. The following sanitation steps should be taken to deter flies, cockroaches, rodents and their associated foodborne illnesses:

  • Waste Management: All three pests are attracted to the odors and residue generated by food waste. Make sure all internal trash receptacles have plastic liners that are taken out once full. In addition, outdoor dumpsters should be placed at least 50 feet away from the restaurant’s back door, frequently washed down to remove food residue and debris and have tight-fitting lids.
  • Entry Maintenance: Pests cannot contaminate your food if they cannot enter your restaurant. Make sure doors are kept closed at all times and that any potential entryways, including holes and cracks, are sealed. Install air curtains and tight-fitting screens where possible. Ground inspection is not enough; roofs should also be maintained to help prevent the appearance of roof rats and other rodents.
  • Counter and Floor Sanitation: Not only will frequent cleaning make your facility less attractive to pest threats, it will also remove any bacteria or viruses that pests have spread. Sanitize floors, work surfaces, sinks and drains on a regular basis, and vacuum any food debris that may have accumulated over the course of the day.
  • Hygienic Practices: Ensure that all employees are practicing proper hygiene, such as washing hands frequently and keeping hair away from food and food surfaces. Microorganisms and bacteria from pests can live on external surfaces and spread by touch. Simply washing with soap and water can help eliminate many foodborne bacteria.

Although food can become contaminated at any point during the production cycle, pests in your restaurant increase the risk of an outbreak of foodborne illnesses. By understanding the pest threats and associated contamination risks, restaurants can help ensure a safe dining experience.

Jennifer Brumfield is a Training and Technical Specialist and Board-Certified Entomologist for Western Pest Services, a New Jersey-based pest management company serving businesses and homeowners in major Northeastern markets. Learn more about Western by visiting