CHICAGO — Wal-Mart food safety officer Frank Yiannas challenged apple growers to create a food safety culture at their operations during his Aug. 25 keynote address at the U.S. Apple Association Apple Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference.A

Yiannas, vice president of food safety and health for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, issued a five-point call to action to the audience of about 400 conference attendees.

He said was delighted to have been invited by U.S. Apple to speak and to have food safety to be the leadoff topic.

"Congratulations to U.S. Apple Association in making food safety so important," he told The Packer. "My main message was that things are changing and we have to accelerate prevention and the audience was very receptive to that."

Yiannas said he wanted to emphasize that vigilance in food safety is more than just creating just a food safety program, but rather about creating a culture of food safety throughout the entire apple industry.

"That’s the message we wanted to deliver and it was well received," he said.

In his presentation, Yiannas called on the industry to avoid complacency in food safety, he defined complacency as “over confidence and poor metrics.”

Yiannas said apple operators must ask questions and question assumptions in their food safety plans.

In addition, he challenged the industry to manage real, regulatory and perceived food safety risks.

“Get experts to help understand the risks to produce, processes and methods,” he said.

He said produce firms must have plans for prevention, intervention and validation, stressing that prevention costs less than an outbreak.

He said apple packers should fully understand the washing and packaging stages of packing fresh fruit, creating processes that control and reduce food safety risk. Yiannas he also stressed the importance of validating that food safety practices are actually working.

Noting high profile failures of corporate and safety cultures at Peanut Corporation of America, NASA, General Motors and BP Oil, Yiannas said developing food safety culture means sharing patterns of thought and behavior.

“Food safety culture is a choice,” he said.

In a question and answer session after his speech, Yiannas said that the apple industry should consider conducting research to determine the presence of listeria on apples. “Know what you are managing,” he said. “Find out the prevalence of listeria on apples.” And if they find it, Yiannas said packers should quantify and seek to minimize it and reduce risk.

Verification, he said, is doing what you say you do. Validation is making sure what you do is effective, he said.

One attendee questioned what retailers can do to make sure their practices also minimize food safety risk, relating to issues like shopping cart sanitation and employee and customer handling of produce.

“What can we make sure (food safety practices) don’t stop at the packing shed?” the audience member asked.

Yiannas agreed that food safety is a shared responsibility but said the critical control points for preventing big foodborne illness outbreaks are on farms and at packinghouses.

In his presentation, Yiannas said federal statistics show that progress against foodborne illness has been uneven, with declines only in E. coli related outbreaks — but a plateau in listeria, norovirus and salmonella outbreaks.

“Are we currently winning the battle? The data says no.”

Yiannas said new strategies will be needed for the entire food industry to make further progress, he said. As detection technologies improve- notably the whole genome sequencing - he said fresh produce producers need to increase prevention strategies to keep up.

“The reality is that industry needs to accelerate prevention (technology),” he said.