Unwelcome kitchen guests…

In Tips and Hints on February 9, 2012 at 11:03 am

I’m a neat-nik in the kitchen. Every few months, I clear out my cabinets and vacuum them thoroughly. Afterwards, I wipe down the shelves with bleach water. The countertops and prep surfaces are bleached regularly (at least weekly). The floors are vacuumed and mopped daily. I only use non-porous cutting boards and those are scalded and bleached regularly. I learned kitchen hygiene professionally and can proudly say food-borne illnesses stand no chance on my watch.

That said, kitchen pests can move into places even where good kitchen hygiene is practiced. But they are a sure thing whenever cooks drop their guard or if cleanliness is not diligently practiced. I once cleaned out a “kosher” synagogue kitchen where rodent droppings hid amongst the (unsealed) supplies. GACK!

That’s why I was dismayed last week when “a little something” flitted by my eye as I did my cleanup after that week’s baking chores.

A pantry moth.

“Arrrrgghhhhhh!” I screamed. I immediately began scouring the kitchen for their source.

“Pantry moths” cover a lot of territory. There are bunches of species of these things and they all have their own food preferences. Unfortunately, many of them like a diverse diet and will eat: sesame seeds, nuts, chocolate, peppers, paprika, flour, matzos, grains, glue, dried flowers, and most other things we humans consider “ours”. One of the best sources of pantry moths is pet bird foods. YIKES!

Pantry moths are serious business. They can infest virtually anything not sealed in a can. When you see “one” moth, you’ve already got a pretty heavy infestation going. Once a food product is contaminated, there is no salvation. The product must be (quickly!) disposed of to prevent a bigger infestation.

I had a pretty good idea where I would find the source of our infestation. A few weeks earlier, I purchased two boxes of Mother’s barley from my local Target store. I mildly suspect any organic grains and dry goods as “potentially contaminated” and those get regular inspection and are carefully stored in sealed, vacuum pouches.

I sent an email to Target, giving the lot number and dates from the barley package. No response. Not even a “We regret any inconvenience…” To be fair, neither Target nor the manufacturer can be faulted much for a few bugs. These things can be found anywhere. Hopefully, Target and Mother’s did a spot check for bugs and the problem was confined to just a few unhappy cooks…or very surprised diners.

My duty to my fellow consumers fulfilled, I turned toward salvage and mitigation of the damage.

I opened the plastic bin where my whole grains were stored and out flew a moth. I picked up the box of barley and opened it…the barley was moving.

The box was full of moth larvae. These are thin, wiggling worms that are about a half-inch long. Gross! The box was spirited away to the dumpster and then the serious work began.

Each container of food had to be carefully inspected for pests. Fortunately, I almost never rely exclusively on twist-tied bags. Still, I found the infestation had spread to a jar of dried mushrooms (the top was loose), a poorly closed Tupperware container of basmati rice, and a long-forgotten bag of brown rice in the back of the pantry. These were all carefully bagged and destroyed.

All of the bins were removed outside and sprayed with kitchen-rated, pyrethrin-based insecticide. We had several nights of below-zero weather, so we left the bins outside to freeze…freezing kills larvae. The bins were thoroughly cleaned with soap and water and then a bleach rinse.

The food products we deemed “clean” were put inside other zip bags and removed to the deep freeze where they would remain for four days. No sense in having a new batch of eggs hatching.  Oh yes, the eggs are pretty ubiquitous in any grain or whole food and one moth can lay 100-400 eggs!

“How do you know if something is ‘clean’ versus ‘infested’?” Pantry moth larvae are prolific web-weavers. Anything with a web inside is deemed ‘contaminated’, even if the package appears sealed. Anything with a dead ‘anything’ inside is likewise deemed contaminated. Since only the adults lay eggs, one can safely assume that a product absent of a dead adult inside does not contain eggs…the larvae may enter but they have to mature (pupate) before they can lay eggs. Ergo (I love that word), no worms and no adults, no webs…”probably” clean.

Fun Fact: The moths lack chewing parts but the larvae can (!) chew through paper, cellophane, and thin plastic wrap. I found a “sealed” commercial package of panko with a minute hole in the side. Inside? Yep. Bugs. So be sure to inspect everything. “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Next, came fumigation.

With everything out of the pantry and cabinets, each closed space got a generous spray of kitchen-rated pyrethrin-based insecticide and then the doors were sealed with painter’s tape. [NOTE: Pyrethrins are very toxic to birds. “Thelma” was removed to a remote part of the house and kept behind its closed door for two days, until the other rooms had been carefully ventilated.] After a few hours the closed areas were reopened and the shelving was washed down with soap and water. Then, came the bleach.

The whole debugging process took about a week. The cost? About $100 in foodstuffs were lost or considered “possibly contaminated”.

What’s next?


I messed up and got the infestation because “just once” I brought in a raw grain without using (and checking) it immediately after purchase. Because the one box of barley was good, I assumed (incorrectly) that the other would be fine too. Given the time lapse between purchase and discovery and the level of infestation in the box, the box was likely infested at the time of purchase. Normally, even newly purchased grain items (in their original containers) are minimally placed in a zip-bag as a precaution. I goofed up.

Our normal protocol when buying bulk (10 pounds or more) supplies of grain and flour products has always been to place them on the bottom shelf of the deep freeze for at least four days. Then, they are carefully repackaged in vacuum-sealed bags. The bags are then stored in bins or in sealed 5-gallon pails. The process worked, as none of our long-term items were found to be contaminated. Whew!

Our new protocol has the added precaution of freezing all small quantity items that are not used within two days of purchase. These products are then placed in zip-bags with a bay leaf nestled alongside. Bay leaves repel most kitchen moths. The bagged items are then put inside a sealable tub for storage. NOTHING goes directly on the pantry shelf, unless it is in a can or bottle.

Going one step further…

Really neat preventative measures are “moth traps”. These are paper “houses” with flypaper on the floor and pheromone bait inside. They are non-toxic and safe, except to moths. Costing about six bucks for two, they last about three months.

Some species of kitchen and pantry moths adore peppers and dried flowers. Our pepper riastras were taken down, bagged, sprayed, and placed outdoors to freeze. It is likely that the little nasties had taken up homesteading inside them as well. Dried flower arrangements were similarly treated. Thankfully, the infestation was discovered in winter! Alternatively, such things can be bagged with mothballs for a few days; but do not use this method for any food items. We gave our decorative edibles the double treatment!

Opened boxes of anything are stored in the fridge. Low temperatures inhibit bugs but do not entirely stop them. Even if your dried, whole foods are properly stored, you must still be vigilant for the critters.

The traps have been clean for several days. It’s probably safe to say that we got lucky and successfully eradicated our “guests”. But the critters can be pretty cagey and seeing one moth will mean we will repeat our search for more.

Unfortunately, if you cook long enough and cook enough (period) you’ll have an experience with routine pantry pests (rodents are NOT routine). Even the cleanest places have the occasional outbreak. But, if you practice secure food storage and monitor your supplies regularly, you can minimize the damage and your financial loss. Our damages came to about a hundred bucks because I was absolutely ruthless in pronouncing something “unclean”. In a very busy home kitchen or in a commercial operation, an infestation of pantry moths can cost the cook thousands of dollars in lost food and cleaning expenses.

All it took was one un-examined box of barley…


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