What Are the Key Elements Required to Establish a Food Safety Culture?

PART 2: GFSR Interviews Walmart’s Vice President of Food Safety Frank Yiannas

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GFSR is pleased to have had a recent opportunity to interview renowned food safety expert Frank Yiannas, who, as many of us know, is currently serving as Vice President of Food Safety at Walmart. Walmart serves more than 200 million customers around the world every week, making it the world’s largest food retailer.

This is the second part of our interview with Frank.

Frank has earned many awards during his career and he has served the cause of food safety as a Past President of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) and a Past Vice-Chair of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Frank is an adjunct Professor in the Food Safety Program at Michigan State University and he is the author of the books, Food Safety Culture, Creating a Behavior-based Food Safety Management System, and Food Safety = Behavior, 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance.

GFSR: Frank, thank you for joining us again today.

Yiannas:  My pleasure, thank you.

You either choose to have a strong food safety culture, or you choose not to have one.

GFSR:  The theme of today’s interview is: What Are the Key Elements Required to Establish a Food Safety Culture? I would like to start out by asking you, first of all, Frank, what steps senior managers need to take in order to implement a culture of food safety?

Yiannas: The first step I think senior managers need to take is to first of all decide that they want to have a food safety culture. I often say that having a strong food safety culture is a choice—plain and simple. You either choose to have a strong food safety culture, or you choose not to have one.

And then I always suggest organizations break it down into three major phases or steps. Number one is to assess the current state of food safety culture in your organization. Talk with people in your organization about food safety—how do they see it, do they value it and believe it’s important, do you maybe need to bring in additional expertise or consultants from other areas in the organization to help assess that culture? It’s about looking at the measurements—do you have the right measurements in place to gauge whether you have an effective food safety culture, or maybe even introducing some type of assessment. So, what’s the current state and what are your opportunities?

The second step or phase is to start planning – and put together the plan about how are you going to strengthen culture around those key elements. Are you sure employees at all levels of the organization know your expectations of them around food safety, do we have enough training and education, are we communicating, are we reinforcing the learning appropriately? And, so, you put together your action plan to strengthen your food safety culture.

And then the last phase is the implementation phase. As you implement, you re-assess and readjust as necessary. I often talk about food safety culture in terms of different phases of maturity. You can have a standard-class organization, which means you’re like everybody else and you’re not really good at food safety and not really dedicated to it.

You could have a best-in-class food safety culture, which is where you’re the best among similar types of businesses —if you’re a retailer you’re the best among retailers, if you’re a chocolate manufacturer, you’re the best among chocolate manufacturers, etc.

And then I think most of us in this profession, and the true public health advocates among us, really want companies to aspire to have world-class food safety cultures, which means you’re the best-of-the-best, and anyone can learn from what you’re doing, whether they’re in your same line of business or not. And that’s what I recommend we aim for.

GFSR: So, it’s a matter of how profoundly a food safety culture permeates your organization?

Yiannas:  It’s really about those core attributes that have to be in place in order build a strong food safety culture.

GFSR: What are some of the techniques you’ve seen work successfully towards the establishment of a strong food safety culture?

Yiannas: You know, the techniques to create a food safety culture are different from the techniques to create a food safety program. If I can, I’ll begin by explaining the difference between a food safety culture and a food safety program.

To me a food safety program is what a lot of us in the profession have tried to do over the course of the years, in that we’ve been generally relying on our strengths as food safety professionals based on the training we’ve received in food science, microbiology and some of the other sciences.

A food safety culture is different in that it realizes “Hey, we need all those insights from those traditional sciences such as food science, microbiology and food safety, but that’s not enough.” We need insights into human behaviour, and so a food safety culture is about approaching the work a little differently.

Another difference I’ve seen over the years is that people working in food safety programs have a very simplistic view of behaviour: “Gee, if we just tested or inspected or trained our people, things will get done.” Whereas in a food safety culture we realize that those tools are not enough and we need to glean insight from the behavioral and social sciences.

Another difference to me is that in a food safety program people generally tend to emphasize accountability for food safety, rather than being fully responsible  for it.

Hopefully through that explanation you can see that some of the tools you have to use are different than what we’ve used in the past so I always recommend food safety professionals either hire people that are well equipped and experts in the social and human behavioral sciences, or become more informed and read up and study them. But I often bring insights from the behavioral sciences into our work. In just about everything we do, I ask, “Is it based in some kind of behavioral science principle and strategy?” If not, it’s just our intuition that we think this is going to work, and it might not.

As you mentioned, I’ve written a book called Food Safety = Behavior, 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance. There are 30 different technique in that book, but some of my favourite techniques to suggest are, Number One, the principle of commitment. Meaning that if people commit to something, either verbally or in writing, they are more likely to follow through. So, how can you leverage the principal of commitment in some of what you do? For example, at the end of training courses, we ask people to commit that they’re going to practice the concepts they’ve learned, as opposed to just signing an attendee roster.

Another principle is this principle of social norms, which is that humans want to do what others do because we figure out that if everyone else is doing it, it might be the right thing to do. So how can you leverage that in your food safety culture? For example, let’s take the issue of talking about food safety and giving statistics on the number of people that are doing it right, as opposed to the number of people that are doing it wrong. If the “right” are in the majority, then that might mean that others might want to do it too because, guess what? Everybody else is doing it. So, for example, for handwashing: instead of saying that in studies we’ve seen across the US a total of 25% of adults don’t wash their hands, maybe say that 75% of adults do wash their hands after using the restroom. Let’s get on with the remaining 25%.

Another behavioral science principal that I’ll share with you is this principal of homophily, which means humans tend to listen to and believe people that are like themselves. So rather than having the vice president or CEO deliver training messages or important messages on food safety, can you have colleagues and peers that do the work deliver the message so they’ll be more credible?

I could go on and on, but, in summary, it is really important to understand behavioral science principles and how you leverage them.

GFSR: It sounds also as though it’s important to integrate hard science and the soft sciences in order to get the best of both.

Yiannas:  It’s interesting that you say soft science because that’s what people often call it.  I’ve literally been speaking at conferences and people have come up to me afterward and said, “Frank, you’re at a hard science conference in a room with hundreds, if not thousands, of microbiologists, and you’re talking about the soft stuff.”  I often remind people that when you work in organizations with a lot of people—for us we have 2.2 million associates—it’s the soft stuff that’s the hard stuff.

And so, writing HACCP plans, although important and complex, we can do that. And we can get people to do that. Understanding hazards and so on, we have pretty good science in understanding that, but getting 2.2 million people to change behaviour? That’s complex.

Sometimes people say this food safety culture, when you talk about it, it seems so simple. It’s not rocket science. And I say, “Yeah, it’s not rocket science, it’s harder than rocket science.

GFSR: My last question for today, Frank, is “How does a company know when it has successfully established a food safety culture? What does that look like internally, and what do customers see?”

Yiannas: That’s a great question — you know there are some tools and techniques you can use to try to measure food safety culture and that field is expanding. But to me you kind of know if an organization has a strong food safety culture if you spend any time in that organization. I have visited literally hundreds of food manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers over the course of my career and I can spend just a few hours in an organization and get a sense of their food safety culture.  You can pick up whether food safety is something that is valued, something that they say and, more importantly, something that they do. Are they making food safety decisions because it’s part of their value system? Do people in the organization value the importance of food safety? Are they doing it just because it’s company policy or just because it’s the law? Both are important, but, more importantly are they doing it because they really care about the safety of the customers they serve? You’ll see that evident in how they make decisions and how they do their work, and what they say –  What people talk about is what’s important to them, so there’s this issue of communication and culture being two sides of the same coin

You know what’s important to your leaders by what they’re talking about, and if you’re not talking about it and communicating about food safety, it’s probably not part of your culture.

And lastly, what are they doing? You can say that food safety is part of your values and your belief system. And you can talk about it. But if it’s not really part of the habits and every day normal social behaviour of leaders and employees, it’s not really part of their culture. If a strong food safety culture exists, you can observe people making the right choices at the right time at the right place. Are employees demonstrating behaviours that are indicative of a food safety culture?

So, I think whether you’re inside the organization or a customer who is outside but looking in, you can know if food safety is really part of the culture. For customers in particular, they’ll know because they’ll read and see things. So, for example, are you really leading on food safety because it’s part of your value system, not just because of the law? I’ll give you an example: Walmart was the first US retailer to require suppliers to achieve certification to a GFSI benchmark certification. That wasn’t required by law but it demonstrated that it was part of Walmart’s value system.

You can just look at organizations and some of the initiatives they’re leading and you’ll know whether food safety is part of their culture or not.

GFSR: That’s fabulous information, Frank, thank you. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today so, Frank, on behalf of GFSR and all of our site visitors, I want to thank you for being such a great champion for food safety and, also, for making yourself available for our conversation.

Yiannas: We also appreciate the work that you and GFSR are doing and, like you, we believe that together we can advance food safety and improve the quality of life for consumers around the world.

GFSR: Yes, it takes a team. If anyone would like further information about Global Food Safety Resource or wishes to gain access to our information hub that is chock full of other interactive content from other world leading subject matter experts working in the field of food safety, I invite you to visit us at

And, until next time, please remember that “Together, we can make food safe.”


About Frank Yiannas

As Vice President of Food Safety, Frank Yiannas oversees all food safety, as well as other public health functions, for Wal-Mart, the world’s largest food retailer.  Prior to joining Wal-Mart in 2008, Frank was the Director of Safety & Health for the Walt Disney World Company, where he worked for 19 years.  In 2008, Frank was given the Collaboration Award by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  He is the 2007 recipient of the NSF International Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Food Safety and the 2015 Industry Professional Food Safety Hero Award by STOP Foodborne Illness.  Frank is a Registered Microbiologist with the American Academy of Microbiology.

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