This week’s episode of the GFSI Experts Series features one of the founding figures of our current understanding of food safety culture: Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy & Response at the US FDA. A microbiologist by training, Frank nevertheless contends that behavioural science is as critical as ‘hard science’ to the development of successful food safety systems, a position he defended in his seminal text Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behaviour-Based Food Safety Management System.
Frank’s current role at the FDA follows a ten-year career at Walmart, where he led the charge in encouraging US retailers to adopt GFSI standards. This private-to-public shift gives Frank a unique perspective on cross-sector partnerships to promote food safety. During the GFSI Conference 2019 in Nice, he sat down to explain this perspective and the industry-informed strategy he is bringing to the FDA. Watch this conversation on GFSI Youtube, where you can subscribe to catch every new installment, or read the transcript below.
This interview was conducted by Barbara Van Renterghem, Ph.D., for Food Safety Magazine onsite at the GFSI Conference in Nice, France. Watch this episode from the GFSI Experts Series or read the interview below.
Barbara: As someone who has been in the private sector, what is it like to now play the role of regulator?
Frank Yiannas: I’m enjoying my time at FDA. I’ve been there two and a half short months. I entered during the midst of the government shutdown, and that was an interesting experience for me, but I’m enjoying the important role and the responsibility that it brings. It’s quite different, the way you approach food safety in the public sector, but there’s a lot of similarities as well. Whether I was working for a big brand, the world’s largest retailer, or now for a very important regulatory agency, at the end of the day I understand that I’m still working for the same boss, and that’s the American consumer.
Barbara: Do things move as quickly at the FDA as what you were able to do at Walmart?
Frank: Whether you’re in the private sector or the public sector these days, everyone wants to act like a startup. The reality is the world around us is moving very fast. The private sector has challenges; it’s moving really quickly, especially these big organisations. Those challenges exist in the public sector, but we are working more rapidly today than ever before. Here’s a perfect example. As you know, the FDA has the responsibility to respond to outbreaks. Last year, we saw two outbreaks associated with romaine lettuce. After the first outbreak, it took quite a bit of time to get our outbreak investigation report out. It took us almost nine months. After the most recent outbreak that occurred in the fall, we were able to get the report out one month to the day after CDC officially declared the outbreak over. So we are making every attempt to work faster, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it.
Barbara: You have been an ardent supporter of blockchain technology. Does that remain a priority at FDA?
Frank: Yes. I’m delighted to see that GFSI is putting such a focus on the importance of traceability and transparency, maybe enabled by blockchain, and I’m happy that I had a role to play in elevating the conversation. After 30 years in the profession, one of the things I realised is that an Achilles heel in today’s food system is a lack of traceability and transparency. Transparency is the equivalent of shining a light on the food system that would hold people accountable and in turn encourage them to behave more responsibly. It was a big portfolio of mine. I spent the past two years digging deep into what distributed ledger technology means and how it can enable a new era of food traceability. At FDA, I have the same interest and the same mandate. You will be hearing more from me and the agency on what we’re doing to try to promote greater traceability in the food system with new and enabling technologies such as blockchain.
Barbara: How will you use your opportunity to shape food safety culture across the whole supply chain?
Frank: Whether you’re in the public sector or the private sector, and certainly when you’re working in large organisations like large retailers or the FDA, your job isn’t to create better food safety programmes. It isn’t necessarily to write better rules or policies. It’s really how you influence the behaviours of the millions of people that work in the food industry. And at the end of the day, that results from understanding organisational culture and principles of human behaviour. Some of those techniques I have full intention of employing in the public sector, because it leads to the same outcome. Food safety culture is a prerequisite for food safety management systems. And if you don’t have strong food safety culture, you can have the best rules and policies in the world — but if people aren’t going to follow them, it’s meaningless.
Barbara: How will you elevate knowledge and influence consumer culture around food at FDA?
Frank: That’s a great question. It’s one I’ve already been engaged in during conversations with our staff. We’re going to do more in the area of consumer food safety education. Let me be clear: I believe that the best scenario is when the food industry tries to produce products that are contamination-free. “Just cook it” is an old paradigm. We have to strive to continue to remove pathogens from the food supply. But the reality is that there’s a shared responsibility for food safety along the entire continuum from farm to home, and we need a strong food safety culture. Some of that is making sure that consumers know the safe practices that they should follow at home to protect their loved ones, friends and family. We’re going to be redoubling our effort, and you’ll see more from us in the way of consumer food safety education.
Barbara: How do you plan to increase adoption of GFSI standards in the United States?
Frank: There’s work to be done. I’m very happy to say that the improvements and progress made by GFSI over the years are really impressive, if you look back to when it was formed in the early 2000s primarily by European groups. In 2007, there was a major breakthrough when a few retailers came together and agreed that they were all going to require their suppliers to become GFSI-certified. I happened to be working for one of those retailers. It was the only US retailer that was part of that group. In 2008, I was behind an important letter that went out to the industry in the US asking for GFSI adoption. I think real opportunities reside between the public and private sector to further harmonise what these third-party certifications mean. For the FDA, Congress has given us a mandate. We recognise and use these certifications in our import strategies. But I think we need to look at this new era of public and private partnership, when resources around the world are shrinking. We will be creative in how we do that, but it’s a two-way street. I think when I was on the other side of the fence, in the private sector, we always wanted government to recognise private schemes. Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I realise that the private sector has to step up and do some things, too, such as: are they really committed to sharing data? Are they really committed to continuing to improve their private schemes and standards so they align with the strictest of regulatory authorities? For example, in the US, sometimes these schemes have to do addendums to comply with FSMA. There’s work to be done on both sides, but we are fully committed to working with the private sector to strengthen public-private partnerships.
Barbara: I think you have your work cut out for you, Frank.
Frank: It’s going to be be an interesting time, but I’m very excited about the future and surrounded with some great people at FDA. I would say that the future of food safety is looking pretty bright.
Barbara: Thanks for talking with me.
Frank: My pleasure.
To learn more about the potential of public-private partnerships to promote food safety, look for upcoming episodes of the GFSI Experts Series with influential speakers like Guilherme da Costa, Chairperson of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and Marcus Long, Director of the International Accreditation Forum.