Food safety at Wal-Mart

by Joel Crews
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Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., leads the retail giant's farm-to-fork approach to food safety.

BENTONVILLE, ARK. – As its aisles were bustling with holiday shoppers a week before Christmas this past December, Walmart and Sam’s Club stores announced to their poultry suppliers, details of plans to enhance food-safety requirements of whole chickens, chicken parts and ground turkey products shipped to its stores. The press release from the company said it would require poultry suppliers to achieve prevention-based certification by one of the Global Food Safety Initiative’s recognized standards. As part of the program, poultry suppliers will be expected to implement holistic controls, from farm to fork; the controls must significantly reduce potential contamination levels, in whole birds as well as in chicken parts. Suppliers will also be required to test and validate their food safety interventions. Lastly, poultry suppliers must be in compliance with the program by June 2016.

Led by Frank Yiannas, vice-president of food safety for the retail giant, the announcement was hardly a surprise to its current suppliers, as the poultry industry had been consulted about the requirements for nearly a year before it was made public and hints about it were dropped back in 2010. From his Bentonville, Ark., office, Mr. Yiannas detailed the plans for the poultry safety initiative in early January. He explained how it is part of a continuous-improvement strategy that was developed using aspects of a 2010 plan introduced to enhance beef safety and how it is all part of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s farm-to-fork approach to food safety.

The food-science guy

Frank Yiannas has three heroes in life. The charismatic food-safety guru for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is bullish about this short list, which includes: His father, Haralambos Yiannas; Louis Pasteur, to whom he refers to as the Founding Father of food safety; and Dr. Rudy Wodzinski, a professor who ignited his interest in microbiology during his studies at the Univ. of Central Florida where he earned his bachelor’s in microbiology before going on to receive a master’s degree in public health from the Univ. of South Florida. Dr. Wodzinski has passed away, but his impact on Yiannas was profound and continues to inspire him.

“I can credit him for my career in food safety,” said Mr. Yiannas, who worked as the director of safety and health at Walt Disney World for 19 years before joining Walmart in 2008. His global role is daunting, considering the retailer operates about 4,400 Walmart stores and 650 Sam’s Club stores in the US. Worldwide, the company serves its customers 200 million times per week across 11,000 retail units in 27 countries.

The development of the poultry program reflected some of the successful aspects of a beef-safety initiative rolled out by Walmart in 2010. Also spearheaded by Mr. Yiannas, the beef-safety program challenged beef suppliers by requiring processors and slaughtering facilities to verify specific decreases in pathogen loads in a companywide effort to decrease E. coli and Salmonella on carcasses and processed beef. At that time, Mr. Yiannas admitted other species suppliers would likely face similar initiatives, but didn’t mention poultry or a target date specifically. Five years later, poultry processors are in the spotlight.

The four-part plan for poultry includes the following points:

1) Ensure chicken suppliers are sourcing from breeder stock suppliers that participate in USDA’s National Poultry Improvement Plan;

2) Require vaccination of parental flocks if a facility finds Salmonella serotypes of human health concern. This isn’t to replace eradication of the pathogen but an additional layer to address horizontal transmission via immunization;

3) Focus on whole birds by requiring suppliers to validate interventions they have in place and demonstrate a cumulative 4-log (99.99%) reduction of Salmonella on whole carcasses;

4) Because there was no standard or proposed standard on chicken parts at the time of its announcement, Walmart is requiring suppliers to implement interventions to reduce Salmonella at a minimum of 1 log on parts — or a 10-fold reduction, specifically on parts. Suppliers are being given extra time to comply with this requirement due to the fact it will likely require many in the industry to make significant changes in their production lines and processes.

Addressing the fourth point first, he admits is the most controversial. After all, it addresses a market-based trend and offers a solution for a large product category that was previously not targeted by food-safety interventions and stayed under the radar of regulations. It may also require some redesigning of production lines and retrofitting of equipment, which are considerations no processor takes lightly. Backlash over the new poultry requirements though, was almost non-existent. Few if any suppliers made a peep, due in large part to the discussion of this plan at the poultry safety summit held in February 2014. “None of our suppliers were caught by surprise,” Mr. Yiannas said. “Not one of them.”

The December announcement did include what was considered by some a surprise in the form of a partnership with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “CDC, along with Walmart, recognizes that reducing Salmonella and other pathogen contamination in poultry products is a crucial step toward decreasing the burden of foodborne illnesses,” said Dr. Chris Braden, director of C.D.C.’s division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases, when the announcement was made. “Walmart and CDC working together to protect public health and advance food safety is a great example of a public-private partnership that benefits everyone,” he added.

Also adding credibility to the campaign was Dr. Gary Acuff, director of the Center for Food Safety and professor of food microbiology, Texas A&M Univ., College Station. “I think this is the first time a retailer has implemented this type of enhanced safety control,” he said the day of the announcement. “Retailers have often implemented enhanced safety measures, however I believe this is the first time a retailer has required a quantified measurement of process control through validation.”

Most of the retailer’s food suppliers are accustomed to the Walmart approach: “We believe in establishing food safety performance standards as opposed to prescriptive solutions.” Because the industry inherently and consistently is endeavoring to come up with more efficient methods for all of its tasks, Mr. Yiannas said it isn’t Walmart’s view that it should establish a standard in Bentonville and tell the suppliers how to achieve it. The company would rather encourage innovation and allow different companies to comply using the standards that best fit their system.

“When you do an initiative like this with multiple suppliers, they also collaborate and talk in their own industry associations and you’ll see one approach emerge as the real leader and most effective way to get things done,” he said. Initially, different interventions are tried, but there are some technologies that emerge as frontrunners and are utilized by most of the suppliers.

Live and learn

Comparing the poultry initiative with the beef program is fair and reasonable, based on the fact that the beef program accomplished the established goals. “We evaluated our beef safety initiative and without question it was successful,” Mr. Yiannas said. After implementation, the company went back and assessed the number of recalls among processors it worked with as opposed to non-Walmart suppliers. He estimates approximately 99% reductions in beef recalls among Walmart suppliers complying with the new beef requirements.

“The good news was that most of the suppliers were able to get there,” he said. “I do think there were a few rare instances where a couple of suppliers were unable or unwilling to comply and we stopped doing business with them.”

Deadline compliance is carefully established, for the beef initiative and more recently in developing the poultry program. He said every effort is made to be thoughtful when target dates are set. When the beef slaughterers were granted 13 months to achieve a 5-log reduction, most were able to meet the deadlines while a few were granted extensions by the retail giant. “We are always willing to do that on a case-by-case basis,” Mr. Yiannas said.

In the case of the poultry initiative, suppliers are being given until June 2016 because it might mean altering production and processing lines, processing flow and retrofitting in some cases. “Based on what we’ve heard in terms of what is going to be required to comply, the deadline is appropriate,” according to Mr. Yiannas.

Why poultry, why now?

One reason the timing was right to rollout the poultry plan is that the company believes poultry safety is a hot-button issue among consumers and “poultry-safety awareness is at an all-time high,” Mr. Yiannas said. Despite strides the industry has made to improve its performance when it comes to poultry product recalls, Salmonella-related illnesses, and unacceptable levels of Campylobacter have gotten the attention of mainstream media, including Consumer Reports, and too often highlight food-safety shortfalls in their coverage, especially in the past 18 months. Last year’s Foster Farms recall was another red flag putting Salmonella Heidelberg on the hit list of food scientists and food companies. During this era of heightened awareness among consumers there is also a shift in demand in favor of poultry at a time when other proteins are more expensive due to supply issues.

“We decided it was time to build some additional layers of protection,” Mr. Yiannas said.

Poultry is an important product for Walmart as is evident by the amount of space in the meat case dedicated to the category. In terms of meat department sales and the number of companies affected by the initiative, “It’s significant,” Mr. Yiannas said, “and a lot of our suppliers are the same suppliers that are supplying other retailers,” and the hope is that the Walmart initiative will raise the bar for poultry consumers at all retail outlets.

“It’s all additive,” Mr. Yiannas said, “and when we say it’s additional layers of protection, it is.” He pointed out all suppliers must already go beyond federal requirements by certifying they have prevention-based, food-safety management systems through one of the Global Food Safety Initiative standards.

Perhaps the most significant tipping point was the prevalence of pathogens on poultry parts and an increase in sales of parts vs. whole birds.

“Today American consumers are buying more chicken parts than they are whole birds,” Mr. Yiannas said. Consumers’ shifting buying patterns toward chicken parts transcend Walmart shoppers, and are evident at most retail meat departments. Ironically the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture does not currently have any food-safety performance standards addressing production of parts, but announced a proposed regulation to address just that in mid-January. According to the U.S.D.A., “poultry parts like breasts, wings and others represent 80% of the chicken available for Americans to purchase.”

Looking at the success the industry has had in reducing the levels of Salmonella on whole birds and corresponding creeping levels on chicken parts, “it begged the question, ‘What can we be doing to put more focus on reduction and prevention efforts for parts,’” Mr. Yiannas said.

As the chicken turns

Managing and measuring the poultry supply chain doesn’t end at the refrigerated meat cases of Walmart and Sam’s Club stores. Indeed it starts with the breeder stock and extends to the meat cases, but also applies to the popular in-store cooked rotisserie chickens that the retailer sells.

The continuous improvement extends to the preparation of the birds themselves. For example, what used to be a dizzying rotisserie chicken preparation process has been reduced dramatically. “We’ve taken a 16-step procedure and distilled it down to six steps,” said Mr. Yiannas, holding up a laminated card with six easy-to-understand icons and instructions. Additionally, birds were previously drained and seasoned in the store, a procedure that is now conducted by a supplier.

Refining the process even more, stores and ovens have been designed to streamline the process and control food-safety risks as well. “If you look at our ovens, they’re rear loaded,” Mr. Yiannas pointed out. And that rear loading of raw chickens is facilitated to prevent cross contamination too. Most customers don’t realize, “The walk-in coolers where the raw birds come out are very close in proximity to the back door of the oven so that you don’t have to track it all the way across the store,” Mr. Yiannas said.

After cooking, the finished birds are unloaded from the front. “That is strategically sourcing an oven. They cost more than a traditional oven but it’s to prevent cross-contamination.

“If you look at the number of hurdles we have in terms of how we take efforts to produce chicken, specifically rotisserie chicken and what we do in stores and some of the design aspects, it’s fascinating,” Mr. Yiannas concluded. After all the efforts to prevent cross contamination have been made, “We then make sure we cook it thoroughly.” Rather than relying on time-and-temperature-based formulas scribbled on paper and hanging clipboards, about two years ago, Walmart and Sam’s stores began using a Sustainable Paperless Auditing and Record Keeping (S.P.A.R.K.) system. It’s a wireless, notification and temperature-log system used on rotisserie chickens but also throughout the stores to ensure safe temperatures for all perishable foods is maintained.

“All the stores, all the clubs have several of these devices,” Mr. Yiannas said. “All the food safety checks we do in our stores are done on the S.P.A.R.K. system.” The Bluetooth technology based hand-held unit will alert the user that it is time to conduct a check using an audible beep (whether to check for hot holding or cold holding, from the meat case to the produce rack). The associate logs in, and if temperatures are being checked, readings are logged using either infrared or a probe. Once a temperature is registered with the handheld device, the data is recorded to ensure safe ranges are maintained almost instantly. Trends are monitored systemwide to detect potential problems before they develop.

Timing is everything

Ironically, just weeks after Walmart’s announcement of its plans to hold suppliers to higher standards, including the issue of poultry parts, the U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety and Inspection Service proposed new federal standards to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter in raw chicken breasts, legs and wings in addition to ground chicken and turkey products. To address Salmonella, the F.S.I.S. performance standard would require at least a 30 percent reduction in illnesses associated with consumption of these products. The agency also proposed a performance standard designed to reduce pathogens with a goal of cutting Campylobacter-related illnesses to between 19% and 37%. F.S.I.S. will rely on routine sampling throughout the year to assess whether establishments’ interventions are controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter on poultry carcasses, parts and ground products.

Mr. Yiannas said because consumers will occasionally mishandle or undercook products at home, pushing for zero tolerance on raw commodity products makes sense. While the company is not dictating technologies for companies to comply with Walmart’s parts requirements, poultry companies are reportedly investigating a wide range of options. One technology that is being given attention is a steam-based intervention that is applied to the surface of poultry parts. Others are experimenting with washes and dip tanks and still others plan to tighten internal controls of the transition from primary to secondary production in their supply chain.

As for cost, Mr. Yiannas said that because additional time is being given to suppliers and Walmart’s well-known reputation for maintaining low costs, “we believe that the costs will be unnoticeable to the customer.”

Back at the start

As for Part 1 of the plan, which requires “improvement” at the breeder-stock level, Mr. Yiannas said the standard is just that. “It simply means that you’re better this year than you were last year.”

No quantitative reductions were made. Primary breeders are already testing for Salmonella and if they find three types of Salmonella, the protocol requires depopulation. The goal primary breeder stock operators work toward is also continuous improvement. “It’s really a countdown toward zero,” Mr. Yiannas said, and while everyone involved admits this achievement isn’t possible using current practices and techniques, research and innovations are driving toward that goal. The retailer plans to stay involved in future talks about whether other serotypes of human health concern be included in national prevention programs and if necessary adding another category of birds not eligible for human consumption. Salmonella Heidelberg is one pathogen at the top of that list. Ultimately, “We can be better next year than we are this year.”

For Part 2, the question of vaccination efficacy was considered carefully in deterring horizontal contamination among birds. Vaccine programs have been proven very effective when done well. Mr. Yiannas admitted this part of the new program requirements were somewhat vague, but work with a poultry immunization expert helped determine how to best monitor the program and report results to ensure compliance. More clarity on this part of the program is forthcoming.

Part 3 of the program is designed to verify and quantify what are often already-effectively implemented interventions. What was learned in the beef program was that most processors’ interventions were more than adequate, but not all of them were effectively documenting what those interventions were achieving scientifically. Microbial validations are merely affirmations of theses, Mr. Yiannas said.

“We think documenting what your interventions are achieving is a good thing,” when it comes to striving for a 4-log reduction in whole-bird carcasses, because many if not most are already achieving this, Yiannas explains. Just like any intervention, validation isn’t intended to be overly cumbersome once it’s established. They will be reviewed during third-party audits, which will determine if the processors’ validations meet Walmart’s requirement.

From a farm-to-fork perspective, the poultry initiative is most significant, in Point 1, as it focuses on primary breeder stock. The effort attempts to address a longstanding attempt to balance prevention and detection in the food safety arena for years.

“I don’t know of any food-safety specification by a foodservice or retailer that goes that far back in the poultry production continuum,” Mr. Yiannas said.

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