The Worm that Turned

Indian-meal_Moth_(10209774676)There was once a very popular chain in the UK famous for its Pick and Mix sweet/candy selection. Whether if was famed around the world for it—it wasn’t in origin a UK company—I don’t know. What I do know: this is one of the pest control stories that people hate hearing most.

I’d been paged a message to get a particular branch with bells on.

The manger was sat behind his desk with an envelope in front of him like he’d been waiting for me to arrive the second the call had been put in.

“We need you to write a letter,” he said.

I’d encountered customers who wanted pests gone without being killed, but leave a note asking Messrs Roach and Rat to politely leave?

“A customer claims to have found this in a Pick and Mix they got here. We need you to write something confirming that’s impossible.” He picked up the envelope and emptied its contents onto the desk “Clearly they’re just after compensation.”

A hairy white maggot with a red head came tumbling out.

The manager looked at me expectantly, clearly anticipating the same shock from me as he’d felt when first seeing it, even though he had no idea what it was. If he was an example of what his head office considered good management material, it’s no wonder they went under.

“Let’s go have a look at the Pick and Mix stand,” I said.

“Eh?” he replied. “You’re not saying that could possibly have come from here . . . surely?”

“Well . . . it’s certainly a large specimen, but my educated guess would be it’s definitely the larva of an Indian Meal Moth. That alone, though, doesn’t guarantee it came from here.”

The Indian Meal Moth, Plodia interpunctella (all good pest control operatives include the Greek/Latin name as common names can vary from country to country), with thanks to Pudding4brains for use of the images (more info in link).

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The below image of a Pick and Mix, found online without seeming to have an origin and used here for educational purposes, shows the same rounded style of stand encountered that day.


Shoppers look down into compartments, so might not even notice/register that the perplex is clear. Realising that there are often two layers of perplex next to each other is even less likely, but look carefully and between compartments at the top, a long perplex ‘cap’ can be seen.

The bottom of the unit had large draws. I asked what was in them; more stock. I opened one, then slammed it shut. The manager looked thoroughly perplexed, everything so far going against what he’d expected to happen.

“When I open this again, if any moths fly out, then that maggot on your desk came from here.”

Sure enough, about ten fluttered out. For the record, it was a lot more than I expected to see.

I crouched and shone a torch up into the clear bases of the sweet-holding compartments. The sweets there ran alive with moths and wriggling larvae, discarded casings and carcases everywhere; plus many had managed to get into the lower parts of the double-layered areas where they’d become trapped and died while remaining in one piece.

I told the manager to have a look.

Jesus Christ,” he muttered under his breath. “How could this have happened?”

“When was the last time it was emptied and cleaned?”

He returned to his feet sheepishly. “Oh . . . Not since I’ve been manager here.”

“How long you been manager here?”

“Three years.”

I’d wager the last few managers before him hadn’t thought to ensure it was cleaned either. In all that time staff had simply been topping compartments up, so leaving any pests free to hide away down at the bottom in the dark where it suited them best with more to eat than they could ever hope for.

Things could have been that way for years, gradually getting worse and worse, pests multiplying in number and rising ever higher in the mix, until someone had been unfortunate and scooped deep enough to also get some larvae in with their sweets.

The manager was eager to move along from his culpability. “So, what are you going to do about it?”

“Can you close the store and clear the floor of staff?”

Close the store – are you mad?!”

“Then right now not a lot except write a report; part of which will say that due to pest contamination none of this is fit for sale.”

He looked astounded. “There’s over three grand of stock here!”

“Yeah . . . Unfortunately, its value doesn’t change my mind. You, though, can choose to ignore me and carry on selling food riddled with contaminants despite the advisory if you want; just . . . if you aren’t going to do that, then you need to make sure people can’t buy any more pronto.”

Before writing the report, I also checked the storeroom; even more Pick and Mix stock kept in an area there. There wasn’t a sign of any pest activity whatsoever, meaning my conclusion was that the infestation originated in the stand.

Though how that happened . . . 

As much as my final position of field manager did make me an authority of sorts, it was also a long time ago. Treatments and regulations can change considerably over time.

Stored Product Insects (SPI), the class of pest Indian Meal Moth fall within, also include certain beetles and weevils.

Such is the nature and size (especially when eggs) of many pests in this category, it’s conceivably possible they arrived in the product and had time to hatch and reproduce thanks to the complete and utter lack of stock rotation and housekeeping. It was certainly the case that importers and exporters of such products weren’t expected to declare them 100% pure due the very nature of the pests in question.

However, due to the many things that could have been done to crops in fields onto treatments in warehouses where the final product is stored (options reduced significantly if organic), that miniscule percentage not product also has a good chance of not being alive either. Meaning the pendulum swings back to the possibility of one of the species happening to find in its wanderings the perfect conditions for feeding, breeding and harbourage.

There isn’t much chance of an Indian Meal Moth randomly flying into a building that happens to have the mother lode of best conditions. But that’s what they do in optimistic hope, and when they strike lucky, you can bet they’ll make the most of it. Overall, I rarely if ever dealt with SPI in places of business, such as restaurants.

To be fair to that statement, however, in restaurants providing favourable conditions, there is normally a lot more to worry about than moths and weevils, and any treatment for cockroaches will more likely than not deal with SPI by default.

What is without question, though, is that in every single private residence—the place I dealt with them most—there was always a dark cupboard with some forgotten or rarely used item lurking inside such as pasta, flour, or the by far most common culprit: breakfast cereal.

If a person likes to keep a selection of cereals in the original boxes left open with the inner bag just scrunched up a bit at the top instead of properly sealed, and hasn’t favoured one or two for some time, even buying new other cereals in the meantime, only to then one night when watching a movie in the dark get a craving for that long-since tasted brand . . . the real horror might not be on the screen.

Though don’t be unduly worried. It is for the most part unseen, and is all just protein that’s been feeding on the same food we’re about to eat after all (he writes as a vegetarian).

These days, whenever in stores selling stored products in free and easy ways, I look for signs of poor housekeeping, while considering the set-up’s practicability. I’ve seen stores with large deep buckets the size of dustbins/garbage cans without lids, all sorts of stored products sitting there. The buckets always seem to be full, kept topped up, as it looks better that way. Things like that set alarm bells ringing for me.

If I can, I’ll drop a ‘crikey, this must take some work to stop pest infestation’ into conversations with staff. The average staff member might be forgiven for not having a clue, but who they work for shouldn’t be as staff are the company’s eyes on produce and environment, but only if they know what to look for. When management doesn’t have a clue, as in the story above, it’s literally a guarantee that somewhere along the line pests are present.

Unfortunately, the worst conditions are often encountered in health food stores, where more often than not there’s greater emphasis on less packaging for environmental reasons. It is a fact that the planet could do with a huge reduction in food packaging to help it survive, but as things stand the retailer, never mind consumer, is ill prepared for what that would entail; even those previously experiencing problems have only done so in a general environment of greater packaging.

We correctly perceive much packaging to be about ‘fresh’, but the aspect of insect free it also maintains along the way is often overlooked. To save the planet, we might have to come to terms with insects in food as relatively common. But, as above, don’t worry; they mostly won’t be seen and they’re already there, albeit to a much lesser degree, in the first place. 

When leaving the store in question that day, I saw that two lads from the storeroom had been given the job of removing all the sweets from the stand. They were using bare hands to scoop them into cardboard boxes. They hadn’t got far, but their hands were already absolutely filthy with dust!

Some other types of SPI:

Larder beetle Dermestes lardarius No 9 on the plate:


Plate in more detail and permissions information here

Other species of Dermestidae are essential to forensic investigations due to their relationship with cadavers.  

483px-Tribolium.confusumThe confused flour beetle Tribolium confusum (image information here) is called so not due to forgetting what it is or doing, but because of often being confused with the red flour beetle Tribolium castaneum.

The grain Sitophilus granarius (No 17) and rice Sitophilus oryzae (No 18) weevils feature on the next plate (more details here). Weevils are distinctive due to their rostrums (the long snout on the front of their heads).  


With thanks to Michael Mulqueen for use of the header image.

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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