Food safety is fundamental

Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the FDA, believes improving food safety is foundational to creating a better food system.

Frank Yiannas is passionate about making a difference in our food system. As deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), he does just that. Yiannas begins his role at the FDA in January 2018.

A panelist at Our Table on food safety in May 2018, Yiannas was previously the vice president of food safety at Walmart, and before that, director of food safety and health for the Walt Disney Corporation.

Yiannas is also an adjunct professor for the Michigan State University (MSU) Online Food Safety Program. He is known for his innovative approaches to improving food safety. Yiannas shared his insights into the importance of keeping food safe and the role food safety plays in our society with us ahead of the announcement that he would be joining the FDA.

Food@MSU: How can we do better as a society to educate about foodborne illnesses and food safety?

Frank Yiannas: While we all have an interest in food, there’s a growing body of people that are far removed from it and don’t necessarily know how it’s been produced and how it travels from farm to table, and with that, maybe a lack of understanding of how microbes can get in food. I think there’s more we have to do as a society, not only in our country, but in many countries around the world, to keep focused on the importance of food safety education for consumers.

I personally would like to see more food safety education done in classrooms early on, stressing the importance of basic hygiene principles such as handwashing, because once you hire somebody, you’re hiring people that have a lifetime of habits. It’s hard to change habits. I think food safety education needs to start at the home and in schools very early in life.

Food@MSU: What do you wish consumers knew more about when it comes to food safety?

FY: We want consumers to trust the food that they eat. If you pause to think about it, the food system today is pretty magnificent. While there’s a lot of criticism of it, and there’s opportunities, we acknowledge that, by and large, the food system is relatively safe when you think about how many people are eating food per capita on a consumption basis. But one foodborne illness is one too many.

Certainly, we expect people early in the supply chain to do their part, whether it’s farmers, or processors and distributors. Retailers and restaurants have to do their part, too. However, when you’re preparing food at home, you have a personal responsibility, as well, to follow good hygiene practices. Anywhere on that food continuum from farm to table, anywhere there’s a breakdown could result in a problem, and so consumers should remember food safety is a shared responsibility and they certainly have to do their part.

Food@MSU: What do you wish academics or scientists knew more about when it comes to food safety?

FY: I wish academics would know that there’s still a lot more to learn about food safety. I would love it if they targeted their research on the vigorous food safety and public health issues of our day. The academics do a brilliant job and they play a very important role in today’s modern food safety net, but how do you take those research learnings and take them out of research journals and apply them in the real world? That’s the biggest thing.

Food@MSU: You refer to food safety as a “winnable battle.” Can you elaborate on that?

FY: We often talk about food safety as a battle: a battle between our ability to prevent foodborne disease and harmful pathogens from getting in the food supply, and the ability for these microbes to actually adapt, change and contaminate food vehicles. It’s literally a war against these microbes that have been around since the beginning of time. They always adapt, and change, and evolve. You just can’t rest. I, and I think many others, believe it’s a winnable battle. We’ve won many battles against foodborne disease, but to win the battle, we have to accelerate prevention.

Food@MSU: How would you accelerate prevention?

FY: There’s a whole host of issues on how we might accelerate prevention, ranging from better insights into science and research on how microbes evolve or adapt to contaminate foods or form biofilms, for example. We accelerate prevention through innovation: new products, new risk management strategies. We accelerate prevention by educating stakeholders in the food system, including consumers. We accelerate prevention by stressing a sense of urgency and a call to action: That one foodborne disease case is one too many.

Food@MSU: You’re also an adjunct faculty member for MSU’s Online Food Safety Program. What is the biggest lesson you hope to teach your students about food safety?

FY: I’m a big fan of Michigan State University. One of the reasons I’m an adjunct professor there is because I know it’s a very important institution, and it’s making a big difference in the food system in general, and food safety. My course is titled Creating a Food Safety Culture. One of the things we try to do in that course is really bring to home, with practical illustrations of real concepts related to organizational and human behavioral principles, how to change our  approach to food safety from not only a strictly food science viewpoint, but a behavioral science viewpoint, and how we can make big yields and advancements in this battle against foodborne disease by understanding principles of human behavior.

Food@MSU: Why is it important for us to have a greater national dialogue on food?

FY: I love the idea of having a bigger conversation about food. Food is so fundamental to any society. If you think about it, we’re pretty polarized as a nation: People have different interests, different views. But the one thing we all have in common is we have to eat food. In my view, food should not divide us. It should unite us.

(Food) is so critical to the stability of a nation. If you look at other countries and some of the political instability that’s occurred, often times, the root of that is an issue with food, either high food prices or food security issues. As a nation, it’s really important that we be focused on food, and we be focused on what I call sustainable food, meaning that we can meet our current population and society’s needs without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs. It’s a complex issue. The food system is big and complex. It’s as fundamental to national security as many of the other topics that politicians spend time talking about.

Food@MSU: What role does food safety play in this big dialogue about food?

FY: When you think about this bigger conversation and dialogue about food, it involves a whole host of concepts: farming practices, sustainable agriculture, making sure that we’re addressing changes in the climate, and there’s issues, even, ethical issues, about what type of growing and farming techniques we accept as a society. Food safety is central to that conversation, probably foundational to all of them, because, to begin with, food must be safe. After we know that it’s safe, it’s not going to cause any harm, then we can have conversations about ethical values and belief systems. Then we can have questions, comments and conversations about affordability. Then we can have conversations about certain desires or food preferences. But the safety of the product is fundamental, and everybody should have a right to safe food.

Yiannas regularly shares food safety news and wisdom on Twitter. You can follow him at @frankyiannas.

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