Walmart's Yiannas details food-safety initiative

by Bryan Salvage
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BENTONVILLE, Ark. – Earlier today, Walmart announced it will implement enhanced poultry-safety measures for suppliers designed to protect customers against foodborne illnesses. The new guidelines are in addition to Walmart’s food-safety program requiring poultry suppliers to achieve prevention-based certification against one of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) internationally recognized standards. (Read “Walmart to enhance poultry safety” for more details.)

Frank Yiannas, Walmart vice president for food safety, told Meatpoultry.com that Walmart has been working on this program for the past year.

“It started with the Poultry Safety Summit we had here in northwest Arkansas in February of this year,” Yiannas said. “We called a wide group of stakeholders together. It included five universities from across the land with professors who are experts in poultry safety; the US Department of Agriculture participated; CDC participated…we actually had regulatory officials from the United Kingdom and from New Zealand at that session. We also had all of our poultry suppliers and some trade associations.”

Since then, the company continued to engage in multiple sessions of consultation with stakeholders including consumer groups. “We have been working at it at a very good pace, but in a very thoughtful and deliberative manner,” he said.

This new program begins with Walmart’s commitment to providing its customers with safe, quality foods, Yiannas added. “As we looked at poultry safety, in general, despite the fact we already have what we believe are industry benchmark requirements including prevention-based certification against one of the GS-5 recognized standards, we decided it was prudent for us to implement additional layers of protection or hurdles,” he said. “These hurdles really reside along the entire poultry production continuum. Realizing there wasn’t any ‘silver bullet’ or single thing we can do that really addresses prevention and reduction along the entire poultry production continuum, [the program] truly centers around a Four Point plan.”

The first point addresses primary breeder stock. Poultry breeder stock companies have done a good job in trying to eliminate Salmonella in the breeder stock. “There’s something referred to as vertical transmission…if the stock is contaminated with Salmonella, it can be vertically transmitted down the continuum,” Yiannas said. “Our first point asks our chicken suppliers to make sure that they’re only sourcing from primarily breeder stock suppliers that participate in USDA’s National Poultry Improvement Plan — a voluntary USDA program that involves testing the chicks for strains of Salmonella. We’re asking our suppliers to know what the primary breeder stock are finding and to work with the primary breeder stock to make sure that rates of positives, although they’re very low, continue to decline year after year… and try to drive them to zero.”

Point two focuses on bio-control measures at the broiler complex level. “There’s something often referred to as horizontal transmission, and these broiler facilities have done a real good job in implementing disease-prevention practices, biosecurity and vector control,” he added. “We’re asking our suppliers to redouble their efforts in that area. We’re asking them if they find Salmonella serotypes of human health concern that they immunize [the broiler parental flocks] against the serotypes they’re finding in those facilities. We want them to eradicate it, but we want them to immunize the parental flocks to provide immunity.”

Point three focuses on whole chicken carcass processing. “The poultry industry has done a really good job of reducing rates of contamination on whole carcasses,” Yiannas said. “They have to do that through the USDA performance plan. We want to ensure that they are achieving really good process control.”

As a result, Walmart is asking its suppliers to validate interventions they have in place and that primary processing for the whole bird achieves, at a minimum, a cumulative 4-log (99.99 percent) reduction of Salmonella on the whole carcass.

The fourth point focuses on chicken parts. In the past, most US consumers would buy whole birds at the grocery store. “Today, consumers oftentimes are buying chicken parts and there’s some data in the industry that suggests that contamination rates in parts are higher than they are in whole birds,” Yiannas said. “That’s an area of focus for opportunity so we’re asking our suppliers to implement an intervention, or a combination of interventions, to reduce Salmonella at a minimum by 1 log on parts — or a 10-fold reduction on the parts. So, you could see a 99.99 percent reduction on the whole bird and another 10-fold reduction on the parts. We’re giving our suppliers some time to do that because it will cause changes to be made in the industry — not everybody is doing treatments or interventions on parts. We’ve given our suppliers until June 2016 to be complaint to that portion of the requirement.”

Specialized testing to validate that the measures being implemented are effective is also a part of the program.

“The only way you can determine [if Salmonella is being reduced] is through specialized testing we often call microbial validations,” Yiannas said. “We do testing to see if you’re getting reductions of organisms—not by just testing and determining what percentage of the samples are positive, but really quantifying that the process can achieve these types of reductions. So, we’re asking that microbial validations be conducted and submitted to a third party. We’re hiring professors who are experts in poultry safety, in particular. And we’ll have these studies done by suppliers sent to third parties to review for approval and then to determine if validations do, in fact, meet our requirements and whether the validations were done in a scientifically credible manner.”

Some folks in the industry are likely surprised that CDC was cited in the press release announcing the program as being a partner — as that agency can be quite “close to the vest.” CDC works with retailers, foodservice organizations and food manufacturers on foodborne disease investigations when the outbreaks happen and are very collaborative in that nature. “I do think this is fairly new for CDC to be involved more on the prevention side in advising an organization on where it makes sense to focus so our food-safety efforts have the biggest bang for the buck in terms of reducing the burden of foodborne disease in the US,” Yiannas said. “I do think this is a novel, newer area for CDC.

“We’re in a new era of public-private partnerships,” he continued. “In the 21st Century, we realize public-private stakeholders are concerned about food safety and have to do a better job of collaborating. This is the perfect illustration in how it can be done.”

“I think this is the first time a retailer has implemented this type of enhanced safety control,” Dr. Gary Acuff, director of the Center for Food Safety and professor of food microbiology, Texas A&M Univ., College Station, Texas, told Meatpoultry.com. “They are asking suppliers to validate their process to meet a food-safety specification. Retailers have often implemented ‘enhanced safety measures; however, I believe this is the first time a retailer has required a quantified measurement of process control through validation.

“I don’t know if CDC has actually worked with a retailer before and commented on it, but anytime CDC is involved and comments, it is kind of a big deal,” he added.

Acuff said he also didn’t know if other retailers will implement similar plans, but added: “I do believe these measures are logical, scientific and should be effective in enhancing food safety. It would be wise for other retailers to follow the same pattern.”

Acuff further believes this is a very forward-thinking step by Walmart to offer customers a product that has received even further attention to food safety. “Safe, raw foods can never be guaranteed, but this is a step in the right direction to provide an enhanced level of scientific control with quantified validation of success. This is a ‘win’ for Walmart and their suppliers, but also a big ‘win’ for consumers,” he concluded.
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