Q&A with Pat Hottel: Pest Identification Goes Digital

For food manufacturers facing an infestation, quick and accurate identification of the pest is essential to resolving the issue and avoiding further damage or contamination. Today, more and more food facilities and pest control companies are utilizing digital technology to identify pests accurately and efficiently. Food Manufacturing spoke with Patricia Hottel of McCloud Services about how processors can use digital technology to take control of their pest problems.

Q: What are the benefits of using digital technology to identify pests?

A: Digital technology can make our jobs easier and more efficient. There are a wide variety of digital microscopes available today which can be used to magnify and capture images of small items including insects. These scopes attach to a laptop computer and display the image on the computer screen. If a facility has the expertise, it can use the scope to identify the pest or pest evidence captured on the screen by itself. If not, the facility can use the photo option to send the image to an entomologist. The photo displayed on the screen can easily be attached to the email address of the expert identifying the specimen.

In food facilities, the capability of being able to instantaneously send out the picture is a big plus in getting the information needed to make decisions regarding handling of infested product and control. Other advantages are that the specimen photo may be sent to multiple individuals at the same time. This again can mean that identification occurs more quickly.

Lastly, it allows the plant to retain chain of custody of the sample. It does not have to physically send the specimen to a different site and wait for return of the sample. The facility has the sample and does not lose that control.

Q: How does the digital pest identification process work?

A: The digital microscope is connected through the USB port of a laptop computer.  Typically, a software program comes with the scope which must be installed prior to use.  Once the software and scope are installed and connected, the user can view a specimen placed underneath the scope. Most of these scopes will allow some option for increasing or decreasing the level of magnification and focus. There are options for saving the image and sending the image as needed. Entomologists may need close-ups of certain features on the insect or pest, so consulting with the entomologist regarding the need for specific items may be required. For example, the entomologist may request a close-up picture of the insect’s leg, wing or antennae, depending on the type of insects being examined.

Q: What types of digital technology can be used to identify pests, and is one type more effective or beneficial than the other?

A: The better the quality of the image, the easier it will be to identify. A scope with increased magnification power will help with the smaller insects and insect features.  When purchasing a scope, the size of the object typically identified should be considered, but there are some relatively inexpensive, good quality scopes on the market.

Q: What pest identification services does McCloud offer, especially for food manufacturers?

A: McCloud has several entomologists on staff and will identify insects for our clients as part of our service. We have, on occasion, done large scale identification programs for clients where all consumer complaints are submitted or all contents of insect light traps are identified and categorized for a fee. Specimens sent from manufacturers who are not clients can also be identified for a fee.

Q: What are some emerging trends in microscopic and digital pest photo identification?

A: I believe we will continue to see digital images being used versus the sending of specimens via the mail. Sometimes the actual specimen must be sent but the digital option is faster and will expedite decision making regarding the control of the pest, answering a consumer complaint about an alleged product contamination or deciding the point of origin of the pest. Because it is easier to send these images, the ability to see trends in insect submissions becomes timelier. The more specimens, the greater chance that trends will emerge.