Walmart’s Yiannas: ‘test the process, not the product’

Frank Yiannas, corporate vice president, food safety for Walmart says the focus of food borne illness prevention has to move earlier in the supply chain — long before processors are testing for it and product is getting into consumers’ hands. reports that Yiannas, told processors at the North American Meat Processors Association’s annual management conference in Chicago on Saturday retailers are willing to work with suppliers on reasonable cost increases related to improved meat product safety.

Yiannas, author of the aptly-titled 2009 book, Food Safety Culture, said the HACCP system is no longer applied in the way it was originally conceived and testing is ineffective, adding, “E. coli is present in such low levels, it can still cause illness but it’s hard to find. Even at N-120, a processor is going to be pretty sure [the tests will be] negative.”

And the industry can’t afford to put safety solely in the hands of the product’s final cook, he warned.

The best way forward is to “test the process, not the product,” he said. That is, if processors (and producers) work with a verifiably high level of safety, then the chances that the product is safe further down the line is exponentially higher.

Overseeing these efforts should be third-party certification programs, such as the Safe Quality Food program overseen by the Food Manufacturers Institute, Yiannas said. Their standards typically are more comprehensive and exacting than those issued by the government, and the third-party assurances carry weight in the market.

In answer to a question about the additional costs these programs and perhaps interventions require, Yiannas said, “Retailers are willing to share (in reasonable additional costs). There are always tradeoffs, but I have hundreds of example in which that made sense.”