Frank Yiannas, food safety expert and Vice President of Food Safety for Walmart, sat down with Food Safety News at IAFP 2015 in Portland, OR, to discuss how he manages his responsibilities, how technology influences food safety, and the role of litigation in cases of foodborne illness.
Watch the interview here, or read the highlights below:
Highlights from the conversation are slightly edited or condensed:
On tackling food safety at the world’s largest retailer:
“Working at Walmart, it’s a pretty fast place. You mentioned we’re the world’s largest retailer — we buy and sell more food than anyone else in the world. We think about that a lot. We operate in over 30 countries and have over 200 million customers around the world, 2.2 million employees, and tens of thousands of food suppliers.
“I share that to say that I realize we have a very important responsibility to make sure the foods we buy and sell are safe.”
On his day-to-day responsibilities:
“My day is fast-paced and an interesting combination of what I call ‘working out of your inbox and your outbox.’ What I mean by ‘inbox’ is those issues that come up that you don’t anticipate: Food recalls that we may see on any given day, a food issue in an emerging market that we didn’t anticipate.
“Any issue that might be related to food and in the news, we’re going to pay attention to it because, whether it impacts our brands or not, we’re going to ask ourselves the question, ‘What does it mean to Walmart?’
“I also try to discipline myself to do what I call ‘working out of my outbox.’ What are the proactive and preventative type things we should be working on?
“Examples I would give from the past few years: You’ve seen us roll out the global food safety to all our suppliers in 2008. You saw our action on the beef safety initiative in 2010. In December 2014, we announced a poultry food safety initiative and at the top of this year we rolled out our position on antibiotics in agriculture.”
“How do you do this at the scale of an organization like Walmart? You kind of learn to solve challenges a little differently when you have to do it at this size. There are three concepts that come to mind:
“Number one is simplicity. Everything we have to do has to be simple in an organization that’s really large and complex. It’s hard to get things done, so we strive for simplicity. I’ll give you an example. We looked at rotisserie chicken and how we prepare rotisserie chicken in our shops. We have over 11,000 retail units around the world. So we took something we coined a ‘food safety task analysis,’ looking at steps in the process, and we distilled a 17-step process down to six steps, making sure we simplified how that rotisserie chicken was cooked, improving quality and reducing food safety risk at the same time.
“Another thing you have to do when you’re operating at this scale is to look for game-changing or paradigm-shifting ideas. You can’t necessarily solve problems like some of the smaller [retail] entities. I’ll give you an example of what that looks like. We all know that Listeria contamination is an issue. Most organizations will focus in on appropriate principles, like sanitation of the deli environment — and we know there’s a focus on that right now in retail. Training our employees — we’re obviously involved in training our employees and orienting them with the equipment. But because of our scale, again, we want something that’s a little bit more bulletproof. So we’re going to do all the things that a typical-sized organization would do, but we came up with what we call a game-changing idea by requiring all of our deli meat suppliers to reformulate their deli meats to include a natural inhibitor to prevent the growth of Listeria to more than one log for its shelf life. Being a big operator, we need to leverage those game-changing ideas.
“Thirdly, I think we have to really be informed. We use data and analytics to be working on the right problems at the right time. An example that I use there, we have a handheld technology system that we use in all of our U.S. stores — and moving nationally. We do all of our food safety checks on handheld devices as opposed to on paper. What that does is it gives us big data. I’ll give you an analogy: We took a look at rotisserie cooking temperatures for a single month. We saw some outbreaks involving other retailers in the U.S., so we said, ‘How are we doing?’ Over a given month, what we saw was that regulatory inspectors across the land that come into our stores, but they don’t necessarily come when the rotisserie ovens are on, so over that period of time they only check the temperatures in our rotisseries about 10 times. We try to be responsible and hire a third party to audit all of our stores, and we look at how many times they check the rotisserie temperatures over the period of a few weeks, and they check about 100 times. But because we’re trying to leverage information technology and big data, we looked at how many times we’d checked our temperatures with our [handheld] system, and guess how many temperatures we recorded? 1.4 million.
“I share that with you because it’s a paradigm shift. I no longer need to rely on an inspector coming in to different places. When a handheld goes off, I know exactly how we’re performing, what changes need to be made, and the pieces of equipment that are more challenging. So we think we solve problems a little differently because of scale.”
On technology’s role in food safety:
“I think food safety has to go the way of Netflix and not Blockbuster. I think we’ll see a transformation of equipment being automated, food safety processes being automated, and all of this big data leading to real information to help us get better at prevention.”
On Walmart’s strategic food safety plan:
“We have a strategic plan that’s no secret. We benchmark it and share it openly, and it’s based on five strategic initiatives.
“Number one, reduce food safety risk early in the supply chain. We have a host of strategies and objectives about what we’re supposed to do early in the supply chain with at-risk suppliers, large suppliers, small and local suppliers.
“Number two, try to reduce the retail risk factors. Those things we try to do right at retail: Cold-holding, hot-holding, cross-contamination. That begins with designing our facilities right, making sure we have simplified procedures, educating our associates, leveraging information technology — a whole host of strategies that reduce those risk factors.
“Number three is to enhance regulatory compliance. In a perfect world, regulatory compliance and risk would be identical, but there are some things we do for regulatory compliance reasons that may not really reduce food safety risk. Country-of-origin labeling, for example.
“Number four is to manage emerging issues. I find that after 25 years in the profession, we spend a lot more time in emerging food safety issues — ranging from antibiotic resistance and antibiotic stewardship to our position on genetically modified foods, and a whole host of issues.
“Our fifth strategic initiative is to try to drive domestic and global consistency — to try to operate in the best way that we can around the world.”
On the rise of retail food recalls since 2000:
“We’re in this race — and when I say ‘we,’ I mean everyone in the food industry — and the race is between public health’s ability to detect and industry’s ability to prevent. The detection has gotten so good — and we’re happy that it’s gotten so good — but detection is outpacing prevention. As an industry, we need to accelerate prevention.
“I’m not convinced that the food supply is less safe than it’s ever been. I actually think it’s safer than it’s ever been. But we’re getting really good at detection, which is a good thing. It will allow us to further influence prevention and further reduce the risk of foodborne disease.”
On the role of litigation in food safety:
“At the risk of alienating some of my colleagues and brethren, I think that litigation has an appropriate role in the food safety system. There’s no question that it’s helped advance food safety and prevented foodborne illness as well as bring a new focus to criminal prosecutions for people who do things that are pretty egregious.
“No question, negative consequences have a role in society and in food safety. Being a student of the behavioral sciences, I prefer to gravitate — and all the behavioral sciences say this pretty clearly — positive reinforcement and positive consequences outweigh negative reinforcement and consequences.
“We as a society need to look at the positive consequences and positive reinforcement when it comes to food safety, not just the negative.”
On the future of food safety in the next 10-20 years:
“Based on recent FoodNet data, looking at the incidences of foodborne illnesses per 100,00 population, the message is that maybe we’ve stalled. Things have gotten better and we’ve made dramatic progress, but in some respects, at least for some pathogens, we’ve stalled. The concept is that what got us here isn’t necessarily what’s going to get us to achieve our Healthy People 2020 goals. We have to do things differently.
“I genuinely believe that our profession is at a crossroads. We can choose to take the fork to the left and continue to do what we’re doing today, or we can do things that are significantly different by changing the paradigm of how we solve problems. If we take the fork to the left, I think we’ll see a little bit of progress, but things will mainly stay stalled. I think we have to take some quantum leaps in our approaches and how we manage food safety.”
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