Wal-Mart's Yiannas promotes food safety culture

by Keith Nunes
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Frank Yiannas, the vice-president of food safety for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Bentonville, Ark, outlined the food safety challenges he sees the food industry facing and recommended a shift in strategy for some. Speaking at the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Executive Conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., Mr. Yiannas told a room full of chief executive officers and upper-level executives for some of the largest food processors and retailers that the commitment to food safety starts at the top.

"I believe and am absolutely convinced that after a career in this field what we have to do is create a food safety culture," he said. "My job with Wal-Mart as v.p. of food safety is not to create a bigger food safety program. It is to further strengthen the culture of food safety within that organization, and that is certainly your role as the leaders of food manufacturers."

Mr. Yiannas emphasized he believes the culture is just as important as the science.

"People say ‘Frank, we are talking about safety and you should stick to the hard skills of science.’ But I am absolutely persuaded it is the soft stuff that is the real hard stuff.

"So who leads culture? There is one group of folks who own it. It is not the food safety manager that you hire. It is not the folks on the front line in your plant. Guess what folks? The people in this room own the food safety culture. If your organization has a less than acceptable food safety culture it is because you are OK with it. If your organization has an exceptional food safety program it is because you care."

Referring to the rash of foodborne illness outbreaks during the summer of 2008 as the "summer of Salmonella," Mr. Yiannas said it is clear the pace of product recalls is increasing as public health authorities use the PULSEnet system and are better able to identify and match illness-causing bacteria.

"I feel like, in general, the industry is in a race and I hope you feel this way, too," he said. "The race is between public health’s ability to track foodborne illness outbreaks and industy’s ability to prevent foodborne illnesses. I think some in this industry are losing the race. I would suggest there are some food manufacturers who have (in years past) produced food that may have resulted in illnesses and they don’t even know about it."

To illustrate how far public health’s ability to identify and track foodborne illness outbreaks has progressed, Mr. Yiannas noted that if the Peanut Corporation of America outbreak had occurred a decade ago, public health authorities may not have been able to connect the dots and identify the source of the contamination.

"That is pretty amazing," he said. "To think that if this was a decade ago and I was standing here today talking to a group of c.e.o.s, we would not even know that P.C.A. happened.

"We wouldn’t know there were 600 illnesses and nine deaths. There probably wouldn’t be the Food Safety Enhancement Act. That is unbelievable. So we are in this race and some in the food industry have to accelerate their food safety prevention activities."

In conclusion, Mr. Yiannas outlined several steps, including developing a food safety culture, he thinks needs to be considered to further improve food safety. They include the need to adopt internationally recognized standards such as the Global Food Safety Initiative.

Along those lines, he also noted there needs to be more transparency in the food system.

"The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 is talking about traceability and we are saying it needs to go beyond traceability," he said. "It doesn’t simply matter where your food came from. You need to know how it was produced; you need to know what is in your product.

"We saw after the P.C.A. event that it took some manufacturers weeks to figure out they had P.C.A. ingredients in their products. This is simply unacceptable. We will expect more from suppliers."

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