FDA Frank: Digital prompts key to changing food safety behavior

Tom Karst of The Packer writes that teasing the details of a new era of smarter food safety, Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner for food policy and response Frank Yiannas spoke Sept. 18 at the United Fresh Washington Conference.

Before coming to FDA last December, Yiannas was vice president of food safety at Walmart from 2008 to 2018.

And Disney in Orlando before that.

Yiannas said the FDA’s work on produce safety has been front and central to his work since he joined the agency.

He praised the industry for its contribution to food safety and said the public-private partnership on food safety efforts must strengthen even more in what he called a new era of smarter food safety that is set to begin in 2020.

“I was asked by the Commissioner to continue to lead our efforts on modernization,” Yiannas said. “We’ve come a long way since 2011, but there’s still work to be done.”

Tech-enabled traceability and tech-enabled outbreak response will be one area of focus for the new era of smarter food safety, Yiannas said.

While produce has an impressive safety record overall, he said there are weak points in the supply chain.

“What I have learned over the years, and especially from my vantage point with the world’s largest company, is that I do believe the food system’s Achilles heel is traceability and transparency,” he said.

He noted that in both the spinach-related foodborne illness outbreak in 2006 and the romaine-related outbreak in 2018, traceability was an issue.

“It seems eerily similar almost a decade later,” he said. “And we still are having to do these overly broad consumer advisories.”

Distributed ledger or blockchain technology can be part of the solution, he said, but that isn’t the focus.

“It is not about the technology— it is about solving some of our many public health challenges,” he said.

Helping efforts to create a culture of food safety among growers, food marketers, and consumers is another element of the new era plan, he said.

“What I’ve learned over the years, is that it’s impossible to make progress without changing and influencing behavior,” he said, noting the importance of “digital prompts” to encourage right behavior.

I agree.

Food safety, Wal-Mart Frank style: Feeding 140 million shoppers a week

When Disney Frank decided to become Wal-Mart Frank, I asked him, why?

frank-yiannasHe said something along the lines of, I could influence food safety for a few million people that visit Disney each year, or influence food safety for hundreds of millions that shop at Wal-Mart.

I’ve always had a lot of respect for that.

Anyone can be an arm-chair critic, there’s few that walk the talk (and the line).

I’m one of a handful of people that have spoken with groups at both Disney and Wal-Mart over the years, and Frank and I don’t always agree, especially on how best to reach consumers, but there’s much respect.

Wal-Mart has 140 million shoppers in its stores in the U.S. every week. How does it ensure that its food supply is safe and healthy for all of those customers?

At The Wall Street Journal’s recent Global Food Forum, the Journal’s Sarah Nassauer spoke with Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Wal-Mart, for insight into the question. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.

NASSAUER: Give us a sense of the scale of what you do.

YIANNAS: One hundred forty million Americans shop in our stores every week. We’ve got around 11,000 stores across the world, tens of thousands of food suppliers, over two million employees.

So we have a very carefully thought out food-safety plan that centers around five core initiatives. We work very hard to reduce risk very early in the food system. No. 2, you have to reduce the retail risk factors. When you have stores that actually prepare and handle food, make sure those procedures are right. Three, regulatory compliance. No. 4, manage emerging food issues. No. 5, driving global consistency, because consumers world-wide should have access to safe food.

frank-amy-doug-jun-11When we make a food decision, our first question is always, “Is it safe?” We then also believe in affordability. And then, is it sustainable? That’s about making sure we can meet today’s needs and ensuring that we don’t hinder future generations’ ability to have safe, affordable food.

NASSAUER: One thing from a merchandising standpoint that Wal-Mart is working on is trying to have a wider selection of small producers, organic food, sourcing locally. How does that change what you do? Is it harder to do food safety for 40 farms in Illinois versus a big producer in China?

YIANNAS: What we’ve adopted is a scalable food-safety approach. We were the first retailer in the U.S. to require our suppliers to adhere to something called the Global Food Safety Initiative benchmark standards. They’re very comprehensive standards that often exceed regulations in countries that we operate in.

But we realized that if you were a small, local supplier you wouldn’t be able to comply with that. So we took the standards and broke it down, so we have a scalable food-safety approach for small and developing suppliers.

NASSAUER: One thing you mentioned when we talked earlier was that what you think about is evolving. The perception of safety is something you’re thinking about more and more as new technologies become an issue. Tell us a little bit how that has evolved at Wal-Mart.

YIANNAS: We have to keep the customer in mind. When you make risk-management decisions, you just don’t make it from a scientific point of view. We start off with, what is the real risk?

We will never knowingly do something that’s risky.

Second, we ask ourselves, what is the regulatory requirement? We will never knowingly do something that doesn’t comply with law. But a third question is, what is the perceived risk?

Food-safety professionals and food professionals have been very dismissive of perceived risk. That probably wasn’t wise. We have to understand perception.

When I was growing up, food used to unite us. Hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. It united us as a people.

I realize society is polarized, but I think food shouldn’t divide us. You have people who say, “I want global food,” and some are like, “No, I want local food.” You have some people say, “Hey, I want natural food.” “I want processed food.”

My last name is Yiannas, pronounced appropriately. I’m of Greek descent. The Greeks have been processing food for a long time. I love my Greek yogurt. It’s processed. I love my Greek cheese. It’ s processed. I love my Greek wine. Processed. I love my bread. Processed.

We as leaders need to change and shift the conversation, and let food unite us.

Just cook it doesn’t cut it: Walmart shares latest Salmonella-in-poultry results

Joan Murphy of Agra-Net reports that Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Walmart, told the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) annual meeting in St. Louis, Mo. that Walmart’s performance standards for suppliers of chicken parts are paying off, with the latest data showing a continuing reduction in Salmonella-positive products.

therm.turkey.oct_.13In 2014, Walmart announced new poultry safety measures to combat Salmonella and Campylobacter that require U.S. suppliers to “significantly reduce” potential contamination levels in whole chickens and chicken parts, and undergo specialized testing to validate the measures are effective.

The standards included new requirements for breeder stocks, an unusual request for a retailer, biocontrol measures, whole chicken process controls and chicken parts’ interventions. Walmart required at least a four log reduction in Salmonella on whole chickens and a one log reduction for chicken parts.

The first three standards went into effect in 2015, but suppliers of chicken parts had until June 2016 to comply, he said. Prior to launching the program, Walmart found 17% of chicken parts positive for Salmonella. In January 2016, the number was 5%, and by June 2016, Walmart reported only 2% of chicken parts tested positive for Salmonella.

Yiannas called the rate trend “extremely encouraging,” especially since Americans have moved away from buying whole chickens in favor of poultry parts like breasts, legs and wings. The levels of Salmonella are very low when the company does find the pathogen, he said.

In general, Yiannas said, companies need to move away from the old paradigm of “just cook it” for consumer education. “We need to just drop it.” Walmart has also learned that performance standards work better than prescriptive standards and that process control validations provide greater confidence than end product testing. 

Food Safety = Behavior, 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance

My friend, Wal-Mart Frank, has written a follow-up to his 2008 book, Food Safety Culture. This is from the introduction:

food_safety_culture_0_story(1)As a food safety professional, getting others to comply with what you are asking them to do is critical, but it is not easy. In fact, it can be very hard to change other’s behaviors. And if you are like most food safety professionals, you have probably received little or no formal training on how to influence or change people’s behaviors.

But what if I told you that simple and proven behavioral science techniques exist, and, if applied strategically, can significantly enhance your ability to influence others and improve food safety. Would you be interested?

The need to better integrate the important relationship between behavioral science and food safety is what motivated me to write this book, Food Safety = Behavior, 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance.

When it comes to food safety, people’s attitudes, choices, and behaviors are some of the most important factors that influence the overall safety of our food supply. Real-world examples of how these human factors influence the safety of our food range from whether or not a food worker will decide to wash his or her hands before working with food to the methods a health department utilizes while attempting to improve food safety compliance within a community to the decisions a food manufacturer’s management team will make on how to control a food safety hazard. They all involve human elements.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf concepts related to human and social behavior are so important to advancing food safety, why are they noticeably absent or lacking in the food safety profession today? Although there are probably several good reasons, I believe it is largely due to the fact that, historically, food safety professionals have not received adequate training or education in the behavioral sciences. Therefore, there are numerous food safety professionals who approach their jobs with an over-reliance on the food sciences alone. They rely too heavily, in my opinion, on traditional food safety approaches based on training, inspections, and testing.

Despite the fact that thousands of employees have been trained in food safety around the world, millions of dollars have been spent globally on food safety research, and countless inspections and tests have been performed at home and abroad, food safety remains a significant public health challenge. Why is that? The answer to this question reminds me of a quote by the late psychologist Abraham Maslow, who said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” To improve food safety, we have to realize that it’s more than just food science; it’s the behavioral sciences too.

Think about it. If you are trying to improve the food safety performance of an organization, industry, or region of the world, what you are really trying to do is change peoples’ behaviors. Simply put, food safety equals behavior. This truth is the fundamental premise upon which this entire book is based.

How does one effectively influence the behaviors of a worker, a social group, a community, or an organization?

frank.amy_.doug_.jun_.11While it is not easy, fortunately, there is good news for today’s more progressive, behavior-based food safety professional. Over the past 50 years, an incredible amount of research has been done in the behavioral and social sciences that have provided valuable insights into the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors of humans. Applying these studies’ conclusions to our field has the potential to dramatically change our preventative food safety approaches, enhance employee compliance, and, most importantly, save lives.

One of the most exciting aspects of behavioral science research is that its results are often of simple and practical use to numerous professions, including ours – food safety. Generally, the principles learned through behavioral science research require little technical or scientific equipment to implement. They usually do not require large expenses. What is required, however, is an understanding of the research data and the ability to infer how the research might be used to solve a problem in your area of concern.

In this book, Food Safety = Behavior, I’ve decided to collect some of the most interesting behavioral science studies I’ve reviewed over the past few years, which I believe might have relevance to food safety. I’ve assembled them into one easy-to- use book with suggested applications in how they might be used to advance food safety.

To get the most out of this book, at the end of each chapter, I strongly encourage you to spend a few minutes thinking about the behavioral science principle you have just read, what it means to food safety, and how you might apply that principle in your own organization (or in your role) to improve food safety. For those in academic set- tings, you might also want to make a list of potential questions for further research.

frank.doug_.manhattan-300x225In summary, this book is devoted to introducing you to new ideas and concepts that have not been thoroughly reviewed, researched, and, more importantly, applied in the field of food safety. It is my attempt to arm you with new behavioral science tools to further reduce food safety risks in certain parts of the food system and world. I am convinced that we need to adopt new, out-of-the-box thinking that is more heavily focused on influencing and changing human behavior in order to accomplish this goal.

It is my hope that by simply reading this book, you pick up a few good ideas, tips, or approaches that can help you improve the food safety performance of your organization or area of responsibility. If you do, I will consider this book a success.

In closing, thanks for taking the time to read Food Safety = Behavior and, more importantly, for all that you are doing to advance food safety, so that people worldwide can live better.


Traditional food safety management vs. behavior-based food safety management

Frank Yiannas, vp of food safety at Walmart and the author of the 2009 book, Food Safety Culture, penned a piece for GFSI’s (Global Food Safety Initiative) latest newsletter about why behavior-based food safety management is key to enhancing food safety. An edited excerpt is below:

The term food safety management system, as traditionally used, often refers to a system that includes having prerequisite programs in place, good manufacturing practices (GMPs), a Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Point plan, a recall procedure, and so on. It’s a very process focused system. A behavior-based food safety management system is process focused, but it’s also people focused.

At the end of the day, food safety equals behavior. And to improve the food safety performance of your organization, you have to change people’s behaviors.

Traditional food safety managers are focused on the principles of food safety, temperature control, and sanitation – the food sciences. They believe that managing these scientific principles will lead to food safety success.

Behavior-based food safety managers have mastery over the food sciences. But they understand that the food sciences are not enough. They understand that achieving food safety success requires not only an understanding of the food sciences, but of the behavioral sciences too. Accordingly, they are students of behavioral change theories, the behavioral sciences, and principles related to organizational culture.

Traditional food safety managers place an overemphasis on training and inspections in an attempt to change behavior and achieve results. They believe that desired behavior change can be achieved by simply training employees and inspecting processes and conditions against established standards. But as stated so elegantly by B.F. Skinner (1953), behavior is a difficult subject, not because it is inaccessible, but because it is extremely complex. While both of these activities (training and inspections) are important, behavior-based food safety managers realize they are not enough to achieve food safety success. They understand the complexity of behavior and, before jumping to an overly simplistic solution; they study and analyze the cause of the performance problem (lack of skill, ineffective work system, lack of motivation, etc) to propose the right solution.

Traditional food safety management often addresses specific food safety concerns and strategies in isolation or as individual components, not as a whole or complete system. In other words, it approaches food safety with a sort of linear cause-and-effect thinking. Behavior-based food safety management realizes that this sort of linear cause-and-effect thinking is not fully adequate to address complex issues related to an organization’s food safety culture or an employee’s adherence to food safety practices.

Behavior-based food safety management understands that there are numerous factors (physical, organizational, personal) that affect performance and they consider the totality of the numerous activities an organization may conduct and how they are linked together to influence people’s thoughts and behaviors.

Traditional food safety management relies on formal authority to accomplish objectives. Food safety managers get others to follow them or their program because they have authority over them and hold them accountable to the rules. Behavior-based food safety managers also use a system of checks and balances, but they use them differently. For example, they use them to observe employee behaviors related to food safety, give feedback and coaching (both positive and negative) based on the results, and provide motivation for continuous improvement.

More importantly, behavior-based food safety managers have figured out a way to go beyond accountability. They’ve figured out a way to get employees at all levels of the organization to do the right things, not because they’re being held accountable to them, but because they believe in and are committed to food safety. They create a food safety culture.