Walmart Drives Food Safety Standards

Walmart Drives Food Safety Standards

Walmart customers have an unspoken expectation that the products they buy will be safe, and Walmart’s Vice President of Food Safety Frank Yiannas drives fulfillment of that expectation through a culture of food safety throughout its stores—and its supply chain.

June 12, 2013

Driving food safety for Walmart means that, in many ways, Vice President of Food Safety Frank Yiannas drives food safety for the industry as well.

For the food and beverage processing industry, food safety is of continuing focus and concern, with the end goal being that of providing safe, non-contaminated, properly labeled product to the consumer. However, most processors are at least a step away from that consumer, with their products moving from the plant to retail or foodservice companies; thus they may have little direct, face-to-face communication or interaction with those who consume their food.

The foodservice and retail stores, on the other hand, have a hands-on connection with that consumer. And as the final link of the chain that puts the product directly into the hands of the end customer, they hold final accountability for the safety of products.

“Customers have an unspoken expectation that the products they buy will be safe,” said Walmart Vice President of Food Safety Frank Yiannas. Ensuring that the expectation is fulfilled means requiring a culture of food safety not only throughout Walmart and Sam’s Club, but throughout the company’s entire supply chain.

And when you are Walmart, which provides its suppliers with exposure to more than 200 million customers each week in more than 10,000 retail units in 27 countries, you provide your suppliers with a value that makes them willing to comply with what are likely the most stringent standards in the industry. In fact, its range of influence is one of the reasons that Walmart upped its standards. “When we say that 140 million customers walk through our stores in the U.S. in one week, and 200 million do globally, we mean that we can make a difference,” Yiannas said. “We have the ability to have a large impact on food safety and health.” This ability to have such extensive impact is also one of the things that brought Yiannas to Walmart in 2008, after 19 years with Disney.

Food safety has long been a priority for Walmart, but today’s focus by consumers, regulators, and industry has added impact. As stated in Walmart’s Report on Food Safety 2013, “We operate in an era of transparency, when advancing technology is erasing boundaries between individuals, nations, and organizations.” And that transparency has caused increased awareness.

Yiannas has worked in health and safety for more than 25 years. “Without question,” he said, “I think food safety awareness is at an all-time high.” Between media reporting and foodborne disease-pathogen pinpointing that has “made the invisible visible,” he said, “it’s almost as though the food industry is in a race between detection and prevention. To win, prevention must outpace detection.”

But what is really at the heart of Walmart’s food safety initiatives—both internal and supplier-focused, is: “What can we be doing to further protect the customer?” Yiannas said.

Driving a Single Standard. One of Walmart’s key strategies to protect the customer is reducing risk early in the food supply chain. To do so, he said, “you have to build hurdles along the entire food system.”

One of the most significant of these hurdles for Walmart suppliers occurred in December 2007 with what has become known as “The Walmart Letter.” The letter, which was sent to all suppliers of its private label and other food products, such as produce, meat, fish, poultry, and ready-to-eat foods, stated that the retail store was requiring that the producers “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.

The directive was not initiated because of problems with suppliers, but rather to standardize food safety requirements at a high level. “We saw that suppliers were trying to do the right thing, but many were doing different things,” Yiannas said. One private-brand supplier told Yiannas that his company had to comply with 32 different standards. With such duplication of efforts, Yiannas said, “the focus becomes trying to pass the next audit instead of focusing on food safety.”

The implementation was a natural extension of a GFSI breakthrough earlier that year. In June, 2007, the CEOs from seven major international food retailers met and agreed to reduce duplication in the supply chain through the common acceptance of any of the GFSI benchmarked schemes. As the largest of the seven and the only U.S.-headquartered retailer, Walmart’s supplier requirement became a milestone in the future growth and acceptance of GFSI schemes as an industry standard.

Industry Impact.
Because of the size and influence of Walmart, the initiative was seen as a landmark development in the evolving food safety climate. Not only have a number of major retailers and manufacturers implemented GFSI as their own standard since then, including such industry leaders as Campbells, Cargill, ICA, Kroger, Sodexo, and Coca Cola, but studies conducted or commissioned by Walmart have shown extensive industry impact.

One of these was an internal Walmart study analyzing the impact of GFSI certification on product recalls. When recall data for 208 manufacturing facilities, including 81 food manufacturers, was deconstructed into two categories: pre- and post-GFSI, there proved to be a 34% reduction in recalls and a 21% reduction in withdrawals. As noted in Walmart’s Food Safety Report, “the results suggest that a food manufacturer that achieves a GFSI-recognized certification is significantly less likely to experience a food withdrawal or recall.”

The second, a study by the University of Arkansas, published in the Journal for Food Protection (Sept. 2012), showed that achieving GFSI certification because of Walmart’s requirement caused suppliers to:

  • Implement more thorough documentation of their food safety risk assessment, prevention control plan, and checks.
  • Feel that GFSI was beneficial to improving the safety of their products.
  • Make significant investments in capital and staff time for improving food safety, including increased training.

With their focus on risk assessment, preventive controls, and monitoring, as well as the specific produce standards, the requirements have also enabled Walmart suppliers to be more prepared for the coming regulations of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). As Yiannas said, “If you are a Walmart supplier, it is likely that you are already in compliance with FSMA.”

Beyond GFSI.
With GFSI at the root of its standards, Walmart has continued to expand some of its requirements even beyond those, with a focus on science- and risk-based controls. “We believe in ‘once certified, recognized by all,’ [the GFSI tagline] but we also believe that some products may require more,” Yiannas said. Some of these initiatives include:

  • Deli Meats. Associates are trained in hygiene and the company’s no-bare-hand policy and adhere to sanitation practices, but, Yiannas said, “We wanted to go further.” So the company implemented a policy that all deli meats had to be produced with a natural inhibitor that ensured that Listeria could not grow to more than a log during the product’s intended shelf-life. This meant that 257 SKUs had to be reformulated, with the result that all deli meats sold at Walmart will not support growth of Listeria, Yiannas said, adding, “By Walmart requiring 100% compliance, what has that done to all deli meats?”
  • Beef Safety Initiative. Although USDA has requirements for HACCP and E. coli O157:H7, recalls were still being seen. So the retailer reached out to industry, academia, regulators, and consumer groups to discuss what could be done. From that interaction, it launched an initiative requiring that all beef suppliers implement interventions to reduce enteric pathogens by two logs—a 99% reduction. Beef slaughterhouses were to introduce interventions that would reduce the pathogens by five logs—a 99.999% reduction. Additionally the efficacy of the measures had to be scientifically validated. “It was controversial, but monumental,” Yiannas said. “We have seen a vast reduction.”
  • Sprouts. Because sprouted seeds continue to be implicated in foodborne disease outbreaks with current industry practices incapable of ensuring their safety, Walmart discontinued sales of sprouts. However, the retailer is working with industry and researchers to develop interventions that would allow for a safer product.

It is important to take a holistic view of one’s system, know where the risks lie, and focus efforts there, Yiannas explained. “We’ll make greater advances if we focus on strategic control points.”

Creating the Culture. Walmart has high expectations of its suppliers, but it doesn’t expect anything less of itself. Rather, the retailer strives to lead by example. “We share the responsibility for food safety,” Yiannas said. “We take it very literally.”

Driving a Culture of Food Safety

“It has been said: what we know and what we believe is of little importance. It is what we do that is important. When it comes to food safety, this point is certainly true.”

Not only is this the line by which Frank Yiannas introduces his book, “Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System,” it is how he lives each day, and how he has and does drive a culture of food safety as vice president of food safety for Walmart, and previously in his 19 years with Disney.

Yiannas holds responsibility for food safety at all the retailer’s stores and thousands of food suppliers, in associate training and education, and for a number of critical regulatory compliance issues. Prior to joining Walmart in 2008, Yiannas was director of safety and health for the Walt Disney World Company, where he worked for 19 years, and where, in 2001, under his tenure, Walt Disney World received the International Association of Food Protection’s (IAFP) Black Pearl Award for corporate excellence in food safety.

It is because of this vast experience of working with food safety that Yiannas wrote the book. As he states in the Introduction, “I wish I could have known 20 years ago (when I started my career in food safety) what I know now.”

It is not a typical “hard-science” food safety book. Rather, Yiannas uses his experiences to explain the how and the why of the “soft stuff”; that is, driving food safety through human behavior and culture.

Interestingly, however, much of the “soft stuff” of the book reflects the “hard science” of today’s Food Safety Modernization Act provisions. For example, a key component of driving culture in one’s operation, and, in fact, the first step in the process, is “creating food safety performance expectations that are clear, achievable, and understood by all.” And how does one do this? By writing them down: “Food safety performance expectations should be documented, so that they are clear and communicated. At a minimum food safety performance expectations should be captured in one central document.”

Additionally food safety needs to be imparted through both training (the how) and education (the why). And what should be the focus? Again, predictive of FSMA, Yiannas states that to identify training and education as the solution, “a thorough needs assessment should be performed.” And in designing the program, one needs to conduct a risk assessment from a behavioral angle; that is, understanding the participants’ perception of the risk of a food safety issue (e.g., handwashing), prioritizing those that have been scientifically associated with foodborne disease that can be enhanced with training and education, then educating the workers on the risk, its consequences, and corrective action. “In other words, create food safety training and education that is risk-based.”

At 85 pages, it is a relatively short book, but it has a wealth of information on the why and how of creating a culture of food safety, most of which are simple concepts or age-old principles, as Yiannas himself states in the Introduction. But, when assembled in such a way as to be as insightful and practical for easy application on the retail or plant floor, as Yiannas does, “They are so simple that they are powerful.”

Yiannas is an international speaker on food safety; received the FDA’s Collaboration Award in 2008 and the NSF International Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Food Safety in 2007; is past president of IAFP and past chair of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network’s Board of Directors; and is a registered microbiologist.

With a greater understanding of culture and human behavior as one of the key attributes that Yiannas gained during his years with Disney and brought with him to Walmart, he knows that creating a culture of food safety is imperative to its achievement. “It’s become somewhat trendy these days, but people aren’t always sure what it means.”

At Walmart, it means ongoing communication, training, and focus; integrating it into every aspect of the workday and making it the social norm for those who deal with food. “You can have the best HACCP plan and the best science, but you have to get the people to do it.

“For us, it really began with design. If you design it right for people to be in compliance, they will be in compliance.” he said. “We try to be strategic and focus where there is the most risk.”

Examples that Yiannas gave were that of its rotisserie chicken-oven design in which raw chicken is always loaded from the rear, and the cooked chicken is always removed from the front to prevent cross-contamination. Additionally, he said, all store refrigeration is monitored 24/7—which is not a standard retail practice as it can be very expensive. To ensure that stores are conforming to the company’s food safety standards, processes, conditions, and expected behaviors, every store is audited every month by a third party.

But simply putting design in place is just the start. From there, food safety needs to be driven into the culture so that it becomes the social norm. This means citing and focusing on that which is done right rather than that done wrong. For example, rather than saying 35% of the general public doesn’t wash their hands prior to handling food, always say 65% of people do. By reporting in-compliance rates rather than out-of-compliance rates, you are incenting the positive and showing it as an accepted social norm.

Making it part of the culture and a social norm also means driving it from the top. As stated in the food safety report, “The tone from the top and leadership commitment are critical to building a lasting culture of food safety.” This commitment is conveyed to associates through leadership messages introducing and supporting food safety initiatives, such as the company’s Food Safety High Five created in 2010.

Based on CDC’s most common contributing factors of foodborne disease, FDA’s retail risk factors, and IAFP’s international food safety symbols, the “High Five” are the most important practices or behaviors in preventing foodborne illness. (See graphic, page 16.) Based on its High Five principles, Walmart also developed educational “Mr. Rollback” videos to further reinforce the food safety culture. The videos use instructive humor to focus on the five key behaviors and are broadcast to store associates through the year. Video is also used to educate associates on other food safety areas, such as its 3D video training on new initiatives.

At Walmart, however, associates aren’t just educated on food safety, they sign a pledge to commit to it. At the end of each video, employees are asked, “Will you commit to practicing the principles in this video?” then sign to its affirmation. “It follows the principle of consistency,” Yiannas said. “If you commit to something verbally, you are likely to do it. But if you commit in writing, you are even more likely to do it.”

Customer Facing Initiatives.
Developing such a culture also means educating and informing the customer to help ensure food safety all the way to the fork. At Walmart, this includes practices from the simple: including customer-facing use of the Food Safety High Five, such as printing it on the store’s plastic meat bags, to the more complex, such as its collaborative Checkout TV Network and its recall lockdown and notifications.

Checkout TV Network was developed in collaboration with the Partnership for Food Safety Education and the Ad Council, focused on the USDA/FDA/CDC Food Safe Families Campaign. In the first of a series, a public-service video on “Separate” was shown on TVs placed above the store’s cash registers and resulted in a 364% increase in consumer traffic to USDA’s “Ask Karen” food safety site.

To further ensure food safety, Walmart and Sam’s have instituted a recall system in which supplier notifications of recalls are sent to stores within minutes, and Class I items are restricted from sale through register lock down on the product when scanned. Additionally, in the club stores in which customers scan their membership cards for every purchase, members are notified if a purchase is later affected by a recall. Through the system, Yiannas said, “We are reaching close to 70% of customers on the day of the recall.”

The SPARK system.
With so many initiatives in place, it could be difficult to track and ensure that all food safety practices and procedures are being implemented at all the stores at the right time and place. But Walmart keeps food safety in check through its Sustainable Paperless Auditing and Record Keeping (SPARK) system. The handheld technology uses Bluetooth communication and temperature-measuring devices to create a data-driven, self-inspection system by which food safety is monitored and managed in each store and club.

“This is an initiative that I believe is transformational—and I don’t say that a lot,” Yiannas said. “We literally have millions and millions and millions of food safety checks on this system every month.”

Using the wireless system, associates conduct food safety checks to test the temperature of hot, cold, and frozen foods. If it is not in compliance with critical limits, the unit vibrates and issues an audible alarm. Additionally the system:

  • prompts corrective action, educating the user on compliance.
  • electronically captures data to provide real-time reports at both the store and corporate level.
  • provides alerts when it is time to conduct scheduled food safety tasks.
  • escalates missed or out-of-compliance checks.

Walmart launched the system at the end of 2012. When the vendor showed it at the most recent GFSI conference, Yiannas said, “We had a lot of vendors interested in using it.”

Industry Impact. The conversion of internal programs to supplier offerings or education is not unusual for Walmart, and is a prime reason it has had such impact on the industry. Eventually, it seems, anything that Walmart provides to or requires of its suppliers generally filters on to their suppliers and their suppliers’ suppliers. “We’ve seen a ripple effect with requirements going back further—especially in produce,” Yiannas said. “We require it of our suppliers, then they require it of theirs.”

As consumers continue to increase awareness of food safety—with the expectation that the products they buy will be safe, you can expect that Walmart will continue its efforts to meet that expectation, and, in doing so, will continue to drive its own expectations and requirements of the suppliers that feed those consumers through its retail stores.


The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at


Photos by Lisa Lupo and courtesy of Walmart