Frank Yiannas, VP of food safety for Walmart (with Tippy), believes that enhancing food safety benefits all petfood manufacturers, retailers, customers and, most importantly, pets.
Food safety is no small enterprise. As Frank Yiannas, VP of food safety for Walmart, describes, thousands of professionals around the world have been trained, millions are spent on research, countless inspections are done at home and abroad—and yet, food safety remains a significant global health challenge. Why?
“I became persuaded several years ago that to improve food safety, we needed to move beyond traditional testing, inspection and training—now, we still have to do those, but you have to move beyond them and start adopting principles related to organizational culture and human behavior,” Yiannas says. “One of my favorite definitions is food safety = behavior. If you’re trying to change the food safety performance of a company or, for example, the entire petfood industry or even a country, what you’re really trying to do is change a lot of people’s behavior.”
Yiannas believes so strongly in this equation that he wrote a book, Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System (Springer, 2009). His beliefs, experience and learnings extend to petfood safety.
“Right now, more than at any time in human history, petfood safety, and food safety in general, is more of a shared responsibility than ever before,” Yiannas says. “The food system today, how we get food from farm to fork or, in this instance, how we get food from the farm to the pet’s bowl, has become increasingly complex and really dependent on many different stakeholder groups.
“Moreover, it’s a global food supply,” he continues, “and if you think about food safety regulatory oversight in a global system, it’s a patchwork of different national rules and regulations and various state regulations.” Hence, the responsibility is shared among ingredient suppliers, petfood and treat manufacturers, industry, regulatory and academia, Yiannas says. “Consumers have a role to play, even the media.”
Yiannas maintains that to meet this responsibility, food safety professionals—in petfood or human food—have to master not only the hard sciences or skills, such as understanding microbes, the time-temperature process and hazard analysis and critical control points; they also have to master concepts of behavioral sciences and organizational culture.
“Food safety professionals are pretty good at writing HACCP plans and food safety programs. The real challenge has been getting organizations to adopt them and employees to believe in them. That’s why I say the soft stuff is the hard stuff,” Yiannas says.
So, how does a company tackle the soft stuff? “Organizations that have strong food safety cultures make the choice to be really good at food safety,” Yiannas explains. “Those organizations generally have leaders like we do here at Walmart who are very committed to a strong safety culture and ultimately protecting their customers. Even more importantly, they talk about food safety being part of their value or belief system. People generally want to follow the law, but they don’t get inspired by regulations as much as they do trying to act in a way that aligns with their values or beliefs.
“Notice I say ‘values or beliefs,’” he continues. “The words we use here are important. Food safety is really part of our belief system, and it’s not a priority. Because priorities can change but values and beliefs do not.”
Organizations that want to establish a strong food safety culture ensure it’s not just a program or the “flavor of the month,” Yiannas says. In his years in the profession and numerous experiences with companies all over the world, he’s encountered many great food safety cultures that share similar core attributes. They:
“At Walmart, we genuinely believe food safety is not a competitive issue, nor does it provide a competitive advantage,” says Frank Yiannas. “The petfood industry can do more by working together than by any single supplier working alone.”
“They need to know why through the education, but they need to be trained how to do those steps in a safe manner,” he says. “Here at Walmart we call this doing food safety the Sam Walton way. He was really smart and good at human behavior.” Yiannas quotes Walton: “I truly believe that people anywhere will respond to the same motivational techniques we use if they are treated right and given the opportunities to be properly trained.”
Yiannas has further recommendations for petfood companies looking to improve their food safety performance, such as focusing on ingredients. “Over the next few years, the food industry and certainly the petfood industry are going to hear a lot about food traceability because of the Food Safety Modernization Act,” he says. “While we believe traceability is good, it doesn’t go far enough. Food traceability tells you where a product came from; it doesn’t necessarily tell you how that product was produced. So we’ve been using the term ‘food transparency.’”
Companies pursuing food transparency require their ingredient suppliers to be certified to food safety standards, Yiannas says, in addition to having certification themselves. And when it comes to that, he strongly recommends adopting one of the global food safety standards such as the Global Food Safety Initiative. (Walmart is an active member, with Yiannas serving on the GFSI board.)
“A traditional third-party food safety audit really isn’t equivalent to one of the GFSI benchmark standards. They’re different in many ways,” he insists. While a traditional third-party audit basically entails a company creating a standard, then hiring another company to audit against that standard, under the GFSI certification, standards are created and then thoroughly reviewed by a technical working group of experts from around the world.
GFSI also includes a benchmark process in which a group of global experts deems those standards equivalent, Yiannas says. This process requires that the standards be accredited through an accreditation body such as the American National Standards Institute to ensure there’s no conflict of interest between the standard owner and the organizations auditing against the standard. Finally, the GFSI benchmark standards have defined auditor qualifications.
“My recommendation to the petfood industry is to learn more about GFSI by visiting MyGFSI.com,” Yiannas adds. “Also, talk to companies that have already embarked on or achieved certification against one of the GFSI benchmark standards. There are some petfood and treats manufacturers that have already achieved certification and more working toward this—I know with certainty—so sitting down with them and learning what their experience has been would be a great first step.”
Yiannas also recommends attending GFSI’s annual meeting, which next occurs February 15-17, 2012, in Orlando, Florida, USA.
“At Walmart, we genuinely believe that food safety, or petfood safety, is not a competitive issue, nor does it provide a competitive advantage,” Yiannas say. “The petfood industry can do more by working together than by any single supplier working alone. Ultimately, enhancing food safety does not benefit just a single manufacturer; it benefits all manufacturers, retailers, customers and, from my perspective, most importantly it benefits pets.”
To that end, Yiannas issues a call to action: “The petfood industry should come together in a collaborative manner and really look at adopting what I would call global, harmonized, leading-edge food safety standards for the industry. Not only will that further enhance the safety of petfood products; we genuinely believe through our experience in the human supply chain that it will drive efficiencies in the food system, specifically in the petfood system, and further enhance consumer confidence.”
Videos: Walmart’s Yiannas talks petfood safety
Walmart’s commitment to pets
Frank Yiannas says petfood safety is key at Walmart because the company has a very long and rich legacy of being committed to pets and food safety, dating back to the founder, Sam Walton, and his dog Ol’ Roy. “It’s pretty rare to hear an associate who had met Sam not talk about him visiting the store with Ol’ Roy by his side,” Yiannas says. “In fact, that’s how our private brand petfood, Ol’ Roy, got established; it was because of Sam’s love and commitment to pets and his dog.”
Yiannas can relate. Case in point: Tippy, the 5-year-old Pitbull/Labrador mix pictured with him here. “She was part of a litter of 10 that our family adopted in Florida almost five years ago,” he says. “She was actually part of a criminal raid. The police officers believed the 10 pups were going to be used as part of a dog-fighting ring.”
The Yiannas family took the pups into their home. “I have to give a lot of credit to my wife and daughter,” Yiannas continues. “They raised these cute, adorable pups and placed nine of them in homes in central Florida. We keep track of them quite frequently, and the nine dogs are doing really well.” He adds that his family has rescued other animals over the years, but Tippy was the first puppy they kept from a rescue litter.
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Yiannas plays with Tippy, whom his family rescued as a puppy from a criminal raid on a potential dog-fighting ring.
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