A Q&A on Food Safety Culture with Frank Yiannas

Food Safety Culture - Cover Story

As part of our look at Food Safety Culture, Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, dishes on why the topic is so important, when he had the “aha” moment and more.

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June 18, 2021

Photo courtesy of Frank Yiannas

It’s not a cliche to say Frank Yiannas wrote the book on food safety culture.

Actually, he wrote two: “Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System,” published in 2008, and “Food Safety = Behavior: 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance,” which was published in 2015.

The current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deputy commissioner for food policy and response wrote both books while serving as vice president of food safety at Walmart. But he continues to preach the importance of the combination of culture and food safety at FDA.

We caught up with Yiannas for an email Q&A (he’s a busy guy) to talk food safety culture.

Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine: Why is food safety culture important to you?

Frank Yiannas: Food safety culture is important to me because I’ve learned through experiences in the real world, it’s what matters most in producing safe food.

In fact, I believe that a strong food safety culture is a prerequisite for an effective food safety management system. Let me explain how I came to this realization.

I’ve been fortunate to have had a long career in food safety in both the private and now the public sector. I spent more than 30 years working on food safety with two giants in their respective industries: the Walt Disney Co and Walmart.

My entire career I’ve been working to keep others safe, first for millions of guests that visit Disney theme parks, resorts and cruise ships each year, and then the greater than 140 million customers who shop at Walmart stores on a weekly basis, to now the approximately 330 million Americans that the FDA serves to protect the health of nationwide.

And what I learned from years of experience on both sides of the fence, public and private, is that you can have the best science, the best documented food safety procedures, policies and rules in the world, but if they’re not put into practice by people, they’re useless.

You see, what we say or what we write about food safety is important. I could go on to say it’s critically important, but it’s not what matters most. It’s what we do — our behaviors — that matters most. In fact, that’s why I like to say that, simply put, food safety equals behavior.

And it’s actually impossible to make improvements in food safety, whether it’s in an organization, a city, or country for that matter, without influencing the thoughts, attitudes and behaviors of people who work with food.

When food safety is viewed from this lens, it’s clear that advancing food safety requires going beyond the traditional basics and it requires a better understanding of human behavior and concepts of organizational culture.

QA: When was sort of the “aha” moment for you on food safety culture?

FY: My “aha” moment came to me many years ago when I was asked to lead, in addition to food safety, occupational safety and health at the Walt Disney Co.

As I learned more about the occupational safety and health profession, it became clear to me that as a profession, they were already considering the role of organizational culture and human behavior in workplace-related injuries. In other words, one could design safe workplaces, provide employees with the right personal protective equipment and appropriate training and develop standard operating procedures, but occupational injuries could still occur. Why? Because the attitudes, beliefs and social norms related to safety in an organization of any size often influence the behaviors of others.

It was that experience that caused me to start drawing from some of those same organizational culture and behavioral science principles and incorporating them into how I approached food safety. And it worked. Suddenly, by striving to build a food safety culture — not just a food safety program — I started to achieve better results.

And it was that experience that motivated me to write the first book on the topic in our field, “Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System.”

QA: Culture and values are words used a lot to attract talent to companies. Can food safety culture be used as a hiring tool?

FY: Absolutely. Let me explain two ways in which it might be useful to attract top talent.

One, if you’re hiring food safety subject matter experts, attracting talent when your organization has a reputation for having a strong food safety culture will make it much easier. Other professionals are drawn to places of employment that are aligned to their values and beliefs.

Photo courtesy of Jason Brill

Secondly, even when recruiting non-technical staff, I think culture matters. The reality is that a strong food safety culture is almost always a subset of the broader organizational culture. A strong commitment to food safety usually flows from the organization’s values and beliefs that align with caring for others.

An organization that has a strong safety culture conveys that it’s an organization that truly cares about people, their customers and their employees. And prospective employees will notice that and, I believe, have a stronger desire to be part of such a workplace.

QA: Why is it important overall?

FY: When it comes to food safety, peoples’ thoughts, attitudes, choices and behaviors are some of the most important factors that influence the overall safety of the food supply. From the decision a food worker makes about washing their hands before working with food, to the decision a management team makes about how to control a food safety hazard, there is a human element to decisions that can make the difference between a food being safe or unsafe.

Think about some of the major catastrophic events that have happened — and the investigation teams that have been assembled to investigate them. What do they conclude? Do they conclude it was improper training, inadequate SOPs, operator error or faulty design? No, the underlying root cause is almost always the organization’s culture.

I’m convinced that a strong food safety culture is a prerequisite to effective food safety management.

QA: In a perfect world, what could every food manufacturer, farm, etc., do right now to improve food safety culture?

FY: I always advise organizations to start on the most important foundational issue to creating a strong food safety culture.

Like building a house, a food safety culture built on a solid foundation will be much stronger. And the foundation of any organization is its values. To build an effective food safety culture, an organization or social group should clearly define food safety as a foundational value.

Values are different than priorities. Priorities can change depending on circumstances. Values should not. Values are deep-seated principles or beliefs that help guide how an organization makes decisions and conducts its business.

You see, when food safety is part of an organization’s value or beliefs, it’s part of its DNA. These organizations strive to produce safe food, the right way every day, not because it’s the law, but rather it’s just the right thing to do and they care about others.

QA: What does food safety culture look like on the ground level? The 25,000-foot overview?

FY: Well, the 25,000-foot view might be misleading. Because at a high level, people might talk the talk, but not really walk the talk every day.

So, to me, it’s the ground level that matters most if you want to truly validate if a food safety culture exists in practice — not just words.

At the ground level, there should be observable artifacts that demonstrate whether an organization has a culture of food safety.

Here are a few things you could look for:

  • Is food safety culture documented and communicated as part of the organization’s value or belief statement?
  • In pre-shift meetings, do leaders talk about the importance of food safety or specific food procedures with their staff? If the leaders aren’t talking about it, it’s probably not important.
  • Do front-line staff have the knowledge and skillset to produce food safely? And most importantly, are they adhering to proper food safety practices (i.e., behaviors)?
  • Is the facility designed with food safety in mind? Do you see clear design principles that convey food safety was considered in how the work was designed?
  • Do employees’ food safety practices change when an inspector arrives? If they do, it probably means that they aren’t practicing food safety, the right way, when no one is looking.

I could go on, but I think you get the drift. A food safety culture is observable. It’s not just a document that is signed by an executive.

QA: We’ve talked to you about this before, but it’s been a while, so what’s changed in food safety culture in the last couple years?

FY: Primarily, what has changed is that food safety culture is now a legitimate subset of the profession, and it has grown in prominence and credibility.

In the early days of the concept, when I talked about food safety culture, the topic was often rejected. In fact, I’ve told the story of how I once was rebuked, earlier in my career, after giving a talk on food safety culture at a prominent food safety conference. A well-known microbiologist came up to me after my talk and asked me why I was talking about food safety culture at the annual conference, because culture was the soft stuff and the conference was intended to discuss the hard sciences (microbial growth, inactivation, etc.).

I remember answering him by saying that after working for global brands with tens of thousands, and one with millions, of employees, I’ve learned that the “soft stuff is the hard stuff.”

At the end of the day, improving food safety requires influencing the thoughts, attitudes and behaviors of people. And you can’t do that with an understanding of food science alone.

Another big change, in my mind, is that in the New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint that the FDA released last July, food safety culture is one of the foundational core elements. It’s that important. The New Era initiative strives to leverage new technologies, tools and approaches to create a more digital, transparent and safer food system.

A big part of the New Era plan is to promote food safety culture throughout the food system and throughout the agency itself. We’re also looking to develop a consumer education campaign to support safer food practices in the home.

Our goals this year include developing and launching internal training for FDA inspectional staff to introduce them to the behavioral and organizational principles that make-up food safety culture, and conducting a literature review on challenges, barriers and opportunities to influence attitudes and behaviors related to desired food safety practices.

We will also support the development of tools that companies can use to assess their own food safety culture.

QA: What do people usually get wrong about food safety culture?

FY: One of the main things I think people and organizations get wrong is thinking about food safety culture as a communication campaign or slogan. It’s so much more than that.

It involves making sure employee expectations are clear and they know what to do to produce safe food. It includes ensuring employees have the right knowledge and skill set through training and education. It involves managing food safety metrics and utilizing positive and negative reinforcement. It also involves leveraging proven behavioral science principles in achieving safe food.

Bottom line — a food safety culture must be created and advanced as a legitimate subset of the profession — not just a tagline or slogan.

QA: The European Commission included food safety culture in an amendment of its hygiene legislation. Is it possible to regulate food safety culture? Can you see that happening in the U.S.?

FY: I don’t know that it can be regulated. It can certainly be expected. It can be assessed, and perhaps even potentially used in a risk-prioritization exercise. And it can certainly be encouraged and incentivized by the public sector.

And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do at the FDA through the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative. That is to identify ways for industry to develop a strong food safety culture within the framework of our existing regulations.

QA: How can food safety and quality assurance professionals best sell their supervisors and executives on the importance of food safety culture?

FY: First, food safety professionals should be able to articulate the difference between a food safety program vs. a food safety culture to their executive team. If they can’t adequately explain it with examples, it will seem vague and abstract.

Second, they should be able to persuade the executive team that it’s what matters most, that a strong food safety culture is not only good for public health, but it’s good for business.

And they may even consider illustrating the consequences of what happens to a food company that does not have a strong food safety culture, and how it can tragically and negatively affect the lives of its customers and damage a brand’s reputation.

There’s the human, tragic side of avoidable human illness, pain and suffering. And there’s financial and reputational damage too.

Finally, companies shouldn’t wait until there’s a tragic incident to get focused on creating a food safety culture. They should do it now, before there’s a crisis, because they care, and it’s simply the right thing to do.