The essential ingredient in healthy, affordable food

Efforts to make food healthier and healthy food more affordable took center stage last week in Washington, D.C. when Walmart unveiled its new “Great For You,” packaging icon. This week in Orlando food safety took center stage at the Consumer Goods Forum’s annual Global Food Safety Conference where Frank Yiannas, VP food safety at Walmart and co-vice chair of the conference weighed in on collaboration, food safety at a cross roads and Tiramisu.

For Yiannas, attending the food safety conference along with nearly 1,000 other people was a homecoming of sorts, as he spent 19 years as director of safety and health for Disney before joining Walmart in 2008 to oversee all food safety matters. Yiannas and co-vice chair and Danone general manager Yves Rey kicked off the three-day conference with an appeal for increased collaboration to address challenges of epic proportions associated with providing safe, affordable food to a global population that is expected to increase to nine or 10 billion by 2050 from the current seven billion. That means the global food supply will need to double or triple in a safe and sustainable way on a planet with limited farmland, fresh water and competition from biofuels. Collaboration may have replaced partnership as the most overused word in the retail industry, but if ever there were an occasion where its use is justified food safety would be it.

“There is an unspoken expectation when customers shop in our stores that the products we sell are safe,” Yiannas said. “The common goal of providing safe, affordable food is a shared responsibility and the complexity of today’s food system demands collaboration.”

Yiannas knows complexity better than most because Walmart is the world’s largest grocer, and a supercenter can have as many as 50,000 items classified as food compared with a typical store from the 80’s that might have had 15,000 items.

“Today’s food system is increasingly complex and global in nature,” Yiannas said, offering the ingredients in Tiramisu as an example. The cocoa might come from Switzerland, the chocolate from Belgium, vanilla beans from Madagascar, espresso beans from Columbia, Kahlua from Mexico and mint leaves from Peru.

The global food trade means there is an increased potential for large scale outbreaks because as Danone’s Rey noted, “contaminants know no borders.”

Yiannas made the case that the food system has never been safer, but the capability to detect and report problems has advanced faster than food safety measures. He then provided a sobering reminder that contaminated food and water claim roughly 1.8 million lives annually. Most of those deaths occur in less developed countries, “but the reality is food safety is a challenge in developed countries as well and despite the progress that has been made we had two of our largest outbreaks last year.”

He was referring to deaths caused in the United States by listeria-tainted cantaloupes and bean sprouts with e. coli in Germany.

“The next big outbreak is out there which is why we must be successful in our efforts to collaborate,” Yiannas said. “Future generations are depending on us.”

The message resonated with those in attendance because food safety is one of those areas where enlightened self-interest is more effective at motivating changes in behavior than government regulations can ever be. A point illustrated in a closing comment when Rey said, “Each time there is a food safety issue somewhere in the world, in addition to the human tragedy, it erodes trust and affects sales, profitability and business growth.”