By Lisa Lupo
Photos by Mike Morgan
FDA commissioners often come up through the ranks of government, at one agency or another, with many in the food industry knowing little more about them than that. But FDA’s newest deputy commissioner is not only well known in the industry’s private sector, he is from the private sector.
Having begun his food safety career at Disney in 2008, Frank Yiannas went on to become the vice president of food safety for what is, according to Forbes, the largest retailer in the world: Walmart. In November 2018, he was named FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response.
“I’ve always said I went from the happiest place on earth to one of the busiest places,” Yiannas said. “Now I am at one of the most prestigious regulatory agencies on earth.” Yiannas took up the position with the retirement of deputy commissioner for food and veterinary medicine Dr. Stephen Ostroff — who was instrumental in recruiting him to FDA.
Having been a part of the continually evolving changes of the food industry for 30 years, Yiannas accepted the position in the interest of playing a bigger role in food safety modernization. “I worked in the public sector, but at heart, I’m in public health,” Yiannas said. “My boss was always the 140 million customers who shopped at Walmart each week. Now I am serving the 300-plus millions of consumers of America.” That’s not to say, however, that Yiannas sees the consumer as his only responsibility. While understanding the various stakeholders he serves as part of FDA, he said, “I think that everyone who works in food ultimately works for the consumer.” As such, he sees significant opportunity in working with the industry from a government vs. private-sector position.
A retailer can have significant power over its suppliers, issuing standards that anyone who wants to have their products sold at the store has no choice but to follow and no say in the decision. Take, for instance, “The Walmart Letter” initiated by Yiannas in 2008. Sent to all its meat, produce, ready-to-eat, and private-label food suppliers, the letter informed producers of Walmart’s new requirement to “have their factories certified against one of the internationally recognized Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards.” Suppliers were given until the end of 2009 to adhere to the GFSI framework — or stop doing business with Walmart.
As detailed in QA’s cover story of May/June 2013 on Yiannas’ influence at Walmart and on the industry, the directive was not initiated because of problems with suppliers, but rather to standardize food safety requirements at a high level. The retailer held such power that, as discussed in a QA cover story on Coca-Cola, even that international powerhouse — which “had had an in-depth, global quality system” — had to modify its internal operating requirements and align its quality system with GFSI to continue selling into Walmart.
Although FDA has the authority to, and does, set regulatory standards for the industry, “we really do want to collaborate,” Yiannas said. “In the private sector, an initiative such as Walmart’s clearly has a big sphere of influence with its suppliers. But at FDA, the sphere of influence is everyone providing food. It’s an important responsibility.”
As the deputy commissioner, Yiannas is the principal advisor to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb for the development and execution of food safety policies, including FSMA, as well as outbreak response, traceback investigations, product recall activities, and supply chain innovations. As his FDA bio states, “Yiannas is, in effect, the Agency’s chief ambassador to reduce food safety risks and achieve high rates of compliance with FDA food safety standards, working to develop innovative collaborations with external partners and stakeholders and effective relationships with government and industry leaders, as well as consumer groups.”
A MOMENTOUS BEGINNING. But before he was a month into his position, Yiannas’ duties took on an entirely new focus, with the longest government shutdown in U.S. history furloughing all non-essential employees and limiting essential personnel to only activities funded by carryover user fees and those “necessary to address imminent threats to the safety of human life.”
While it did put a hold on intended and scheduled activities (including the date of this exclusive QA interview), in the midst of it all, Yiannas said, “I learned a lot and gained a stronger resolve about why I’m here.” Having workers show up without pay because of their commitment to protecting the public “was profoundly moving,” he said, then asked, “What would happen if this happened in the private sector?” He also learned about what he can and can’t do in such a situation, i.e., what are considered “essential activities.”
Through it all, he said, he felt the industry continued to manage their food safety systems. “Most folks in the industry want to do the right thing,” he said. And once the shutdown was over? “We have to get back to food safety modernization,” he said.
FOOD SAFETY MODERNIZATION. Yiannas specifically stated “food safety modernization” as an overarching initiative vs. general compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). “I go back in time to about 10 years ago when FSMA was new and we were all energized,” he said. “But I still believe in the promise of FSMA.”
The promise of FSMA is not about regulation, it’s about modernizing food safety for the 21st century, and the industry is now in phase two of that promise: implementation. (Phase one was the writing of the rules.) “While we encourage high rates of compliance, it’s broader than regulation,” he said. While noting that the U.S. food system is “pretty safe,” Yiannas added, “But I do believe that one foodborne illness is one too many.” At the end of the day, the question is: are fewer people getting sick? To provide a positive response to that, “we need to continue to modernize our food safety approaches,” he said. “I see the next 10 years in food safety being greater than that past 10 years — and it already looked vastly different in 2018 than in 2008.”
TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION. Yiannas has long advocated for and implemented technological innovations for food safety advancement and supply chain traceability and transparency. Thus, it comes as no surprise that he would say, “Innovation is one of my favorite words.” Noting that this applies to areas such as new ideas, risk management approaches, and testing as well as traceability, he said, “It’s important to advance food safety with change and innovation.”
His focus on this area was, in fact, one of the reasons Yiannas was recruited to the agency. In a February announcement about a new drug tracking pilot, then-Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stated that FDA is invested in exploring new ways to improve traceability across the products it regulates. Then citing Yiannas as “an expert on the use of traceability technologies in global food supply chains,” Gottlieb said, “He’ll be working closely with me on ways for the FDA to facilitate the expansion of such methods, such as blockchain technology, to further strengthen the U.S. food supply.”
But Yiannas is not interested in blockchain as a technology, rather in its ability to solve issues of traceability in the food supply chain. “I am interested in this concept of creating a more transparent and traceable food system,” which he sees as essential to food safety. In fact, he sees it as one of the most significant innovations in the history of food safety.
Citing pasteurization, HACCP, pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE), and whole genome sequencing (WGS) as significant advances, he said, “I believe this concept of transparency is as big as — or bigger than — those.”
This is because it’s not just about where, but how, food is produced. Transparency provides accountability, and accountability leads to responsibility, he said. “If the light is shining on you, you tend to improve and optimize your behavior. I’ve seen transparency in action, and it’s good for everyone.”
FOOD SAFETY=BEHAVIOR. As a long-time advocate, presenter, and author of two books on the topic, “there’s no way I don’t bring my belief that food safety culture is essential,” Yiannas said. “I’ve been in food for 30 years, I know the challenges. If you think you can advance food safety on food science alone, you’re mistaken. Food science is only half the equation.” The other half is people.
The good news, he said, is that the industry has come around to that thinking over the last couple decades. At the conclusion of his very first presentation on food safety culture, Yiannas said he was asked, “Why are you talking about food safety culture at a food science conference?” His response: “This conference is about the hard stuff. But it’s the soft stuff that’s the hard stuff.” How do you get 100,000 people in a large company to all do something? It’s all about developing it as a culture, he said.
That development is one of the four key areas Yiannas sees as critical, and it is his top recommendation for all food companies not only to comply with FDA regulations but to advance their food safety systems and consumer protection:
- Promote a culture of food safety in your organization. It is not just a culture of complying with the rules, but of living its values. “You’re going to do well if you have the culture.”
- Keep on working on accelerating prevention. There’s a race between the ability to detect foodborne illness and the ability to prevent it, he said. Technology is continually moving the bar on the levels to which pathogens can be detected. “You have to keep up with the ability to detect. If you think you can do the same thing next year as this year, think again.”
- Avoid complacency. As an example of what he means, Yiannas said that when he looked at outbreaks while at Walmart, he waited for everything to settle, then asked to meet with the organization implicated in the contamination, stating, “I want to learn more.” Complacency can be an issue of overconfidence (thinking that nothing has happened for years) or of having poor metrics for controlling issues. “Avoiding complacency is having the right hazard analysis and metrics.”
- Be open to adopting new and innovative approaches in technology. “Everything will be people led, but it has to be FSMA based, and it will all be technology enabled.”
FROM PRIVATE TO PUBLIC. Even feeling that he is now in a place where he belongs, Yiannas does miss some parts of the private sector. “I miss a lot of things — I miss Mickey,” he said with a grin. But the comment was not completely in fun.
Starting his career at Disney provided him with skills he has used since. Some of the most significant are the focus on guest services vs. customer services, the culture the goes along with that, and the attention to detail. He saw, first hand, the difference that can be made by something as simple as trash-can placement: shifting a can by 10 feet could reduce or increase clutter. “In food safety, this is really important because attention to detail matters,” he said. Additionally, with the employee diversity of Disney, “I learned the importance of communicating without words,” he said. He brought that skill to the food industry as the chair of the IAFP International Food Safety Icons Task Force.
At Walmart, he learned the value of simplicity. With stores throughout the world, anything too complex had to be scaled down to ensure implementation.
Of the private sector in general, he said, “I miss the energy. It doesn’t matter what their size is, they are trying to work as start-ups. I want to bring that same thing to FDA.”
“The industry moves fast,” he said. “We will try to keep pace.” Judging by the industry influence he had at the “busiest place on earth,” you can bet that Yiannas’ work at “one of the most prestigious places” will not only keep pace, but will likely exceed it, pulling the food industry along with him.
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org