Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. In the August/September 2023 issue of FQ&S, we’ll hear more from Frank Yiannas, specifically about his time at Walmart and his thoughts on the importance of and challenges with food traceability.
Frank Yiannas, MPH, is FDA’s former deputy commissioner for food policy and response, a position he held from in 2018 to 2023. Before joining FDA, Yiannas served in food safety leadership roles at Walmart and the Walt Disney Company, and as president of the International Association for Food Protection. He’s authored two books, Food Safety Culture and Food Safety = Behavior.
Food Quality & Safety: Looking back over the last 30 years in food safety, what big moments stand out to you?
Frank Yiannas: When I look back at the 30 years, which would go back to 1993, I think of the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak and E. coli. This was such a milestone event in terms of tragic consequences; hundreds of people becoming ill—lots of them children—and four deaths among kids. This is a real reminder that foodborne disease is not about statistics, there are real faces to foodborne disease. That was such a monumental event because it started to change our thinking of the paradigm, which is that this just “cook it” mentality wasn’t good enough; that we all had to work on reducing contamination early in the production chain.
Another one for me is in 1996, CDC launched FoodNet using pulse field gel electrophoresis with just a few states: Minnesota, Massachusetts, Texas, and the state of Washington. That was a real game changer; we could now increasingly find these needles in the haystack because of this new discriminating tool. We could then figure out whether these cases of illnesses were associated with related pathogens.
In 2006, there was another seminal event in which we saw a pretty large outbreak in our country linked to bagged spinach. CDC and FDA advised consumers not to eat bag spinach because consumers were becoming ill with E. coli O157:H7. It took FDA two weeks to identify the source. That was the first outbreak that really put a spotlight on the need for better food traceability.
In more recent times, what stands out to me is the pandemic and how the food and ag industry—which I’m so grateful for—responded through that event. Although the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not transmitted by food, it wreaked havoc on food supply chains.
I’m also very honored to have worked with the men and women at FDA to launch the New Era of Smarter Food Safety at the beginning of this decade. There’s some great work happening right now at the agency with the Final Food Traceability Rule and work FDA is doing on machine learning to detect violative seafood shipments.
It’s a long, rich history. I would just encourage your readers to go back, understand, and study some of these monumental milestone events, because I think they’re important in illuminating and informing the future.
FQ&S: Do you think we’ve become any better at learning from the past?
FY: You have to have very high standards when it comes to wanting to improve food safety and the wellness and quality of life of consumers. If you ask if we’ve learned the lessons of the past well enough and are we at a fast enough pace, the answer is no.
A perfect example is, in 2006, the bagged spinach outbreak; public health officials and regulators at the state level couldn’t identify its source for about two weeks. We had to pull spinach from all grocery store shelves. The industry was devastated for a period of about seven years and spinach sales never recovered. In 2018, we have a romaine lettuce outbreak that looks very, very similar. What were the lessons learned? Why hadn’t we made more progress?