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.

Wal-creatures in need of food safety information

The hottest word (in my opinion) of 2009: wal-creature. If you’re a late night Wal-Mart shopper like me (I’d rather avoid the daytime crowd), then there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve come across one. A wal-creature is anyone shopping at Wal-Mart wearing outlandish or ridiculous clothing, whether it be too tight or blindingly bright. A wal-creature could be Mimi from Drew Carey. Wal-creatures may be encountered in real life, but more often are photographed and put up on one of my favorite sites: The site has daily updates with pictures and captions of the craziest people spotted in Wal-Mart. 

First off, I’m pretty surprised that some of these people leave their house dressed as they are. Secondly, I can’t believe how many of these people have been photographed in the store with animals. There aren’t too many Wal-Marts around without a food section, so there’s a very good chance that these animals have accompanied their owners on that side of the store. includes photos of wal-creatures with monkeys (2 of them), raccoons, snakes, pigs, and even macaws.
In my opinion, the photo with the macaw is the most disturbing. The caption says it best: “Oh no Ms., it’s cool, I love stepping in parrot sh*t whenever I’m buying celery. Nothing says sanitary like a parrot in the produce section…” I cannot believe this lady got away with bringing a giant Salmonella factory into the produce section of a grocery store. I’m a big proponent of service dogs – dogs only. This bird’s rectum is pointed precariously close to the cases of strawberries. Unfortunately the manager at the store couldn’t have done anything about it (whether he was aware of the bird in the store or not). Laws are in place to protect disabled people with service animals from being asked to leave stores. Managers are not even allowed to ask what their disability is (which isn’t overly apparent in this situation) and disabled patrons are not required to show documentation for their service animals. I wish this could be regulated somehow because I have suspicions that the bird isn’t a real service animal, instead it’s just a pet.
Pets in grocery stores gross me out and tick me off. Wal-creatures just scare me.

Costco and Wal-Mart – doing food safety right

Retired Jack-in-the-Box food safety guru David Theno, told hundreds of tree fruit growers at the 105th annual meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association in Wenatchee on Monday, Dec. 7 that regarding food safety,

"It doesn’t necessarily cost more to do it right. Costco and Wal-Mart are huge drivers of food safety and are willing to spend a little more."


Anyone can criticize Wal-Mart; can you provide microbiologically safe food? Food, Inc. version

I have a lot of respect for my friend Frank.

Anyone can be a poser and critic; Frank actually tries to make change.

Frank’s the head of food safety at Wal-Mart. He used to be head of food safety at Walt Disney in Orlando, and when I visited with Frank and his staff in Bentonville, Arkansas a couple of months ago, he was enthusiastically telling me about the challenges of providing safe food – that’s food that doesn’t make people barf – to millions of people on a daily basis.

“Disney was a challenge. This is a lot bigger.”

Frank’s even put his thoughts on paper, in a book called, Food Safety Culture, published last year.

Unlike Food, Inc., the movie version won’t be opening at theatres any time soon.

As far as I can tell, because I haven’t seen the movie and won’t until it comes on my cable movie channels, Food, Inc. is a little about food safety, and only because Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser figured out that if you mention food safety a bunch of times, it sells more books or movies (see the Colbert clip below). The rest is about all things perceived to be bad about food, like genetic engineering, animal welfare, and whatever else.

Frank has to provide safe food to millions of people every day … or he gets sued.

Some people, like Michael Pollan,  are journalism professors at Berkeley and can reiterate bullshit like grass-fed cattle have lower levels of E. coli O157:H7.

Dude, just cause it’s written a bunch of times on the Internet doesn’t make it true.

Some people are biology professors, like Dave Renter at Kansas State, who doesn’t make movies but does know that E. coli O157:H7 and friends are complicated, and show up in lots of places. Oh, and it was a grass-fed cow-calf operation that was responsible for the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in transitional organic spinach in 2006 that sickened 200 and killed four. There are many more outbreaks linked to biology rather than the politically convenient factory farming. Some people, like Frank, are actually responsible for delivering safe food.

Frank writes in his book, Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-based Food Safety Management System, that an organization’s food safety systems need to be an integral part of its culture.

Consumers at the local market, the stop-n-shop or the supermarket, can ask someone, how do I know this food won’t make me barf? While such talk may be socially frowned upon, it’s time to put aside the niceties and bureau-speak and talk directly about safe food.  Ask at Wal-Mart; ask at your local market. I know if Frank were there, he’d be able to answer.

Schlosser comers across as an idiot.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Eric Schlosser
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Stephen Colbert in Iraq

Expiration dates mean quality, not safety

The local grocery store where I earned minimum wage in my high school days closed down after I went off to college because it could no longer afford to compete with the Wal-Mart Supercenter in the next town.

I suppose confining the sale of expired goods to a single grocery cart at the front of the store really limited our earning potential.

Likewise, confining my ideas on the safety of out-of-date food to simple assumptions really limited my family’s money-saving potential. In my naivety, I assumed that dates on food referred to how long they were safe to eat.

This is not true.

Most dates provided by manufacturers on packages of food are just an indication of when the quality of the item will start to decline and—in the majority of cases—foods will remain safe past the date given.

This is why people are comfortable buying expired foods at discounted prices from online sellers in the UK and local groceries in Pennsylvania.

Many food safety authorities feel that pregnant women should be more careful than these buyers, though. Agencies in Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, each tell pregnant women to avoid food past their ‘use by’ dates protect themselves and their babies from harm.

I am certainly not the foremost authority on the diet of a pregnant woman. But in the words of my new favorite USDA FSIS fact sheet,

“‘Use-by’ dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates.”