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FDA food safety chief Ostroff to retire and be replaced by Walmart's Yiannas

Dive Brief:

• The Food and Drug Administration's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, Stephen Ostroff, will retire Jan. 5 and be replaced by Frank Yiannas, vice-president of food safety and health for Walmart. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb shared the news Thursday via a staff email, Politico reported.

• Yiannas will join FDA next month but will not have the same title as Ostroff, Politico said. Instead, he will be FDA's deputy commissioner for food policy and response. This reflects an agency reorganization now underway setting up an Office of Food Policy and Response to focus on food safety.

• "We face a lot of new threats, and Frank has a lot of experience in deploying novel technologies to thwart emerging risks. I’m confident he’ll help us continue to modernize our approach to food safety," Gottlieb told Politico in a statement. He added that Ostroff had been instrumental in recruiting Yiannis and would help him settle into his new role.

Dive Insight:
Ostroff, a medical doctor, has an extensive public health background. He first joined FDA in 2013 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he was deputy director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases and focused on food safety and coordinating outbreak responses. At the FDA, he twice served as acting commissioner.

Ostroff was also on hand during the rollout of the Food Safety Modernization Act, considered the most significant revamping of U.S. food safety regulations in 70 years. Signed into law in 2011 by President Obama, FSMA shifted the FDA to a more proactive stance toward food contamination.

Implementing FSMA has been a massive task. Starting in 2013, the agency proposed sweeping regulations to enforce the law's seven foundational rules. Due to confusion among the regulated community and other problems, the agency also added exemptions and repeatedly pushed back deadlines.

The FDA also has been criticized for not moving fast enough to inspect domestic food facilities and following up to make FSMA deadlines. About a year ago, a report from the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the overall number of facilities inspected in the four years since FSMA's enactment declined from 19,000 in 2011 to 16,000 in 2015.
Agency officials responded that they were involved in other activities, such as responding to food recalls, as well as collecting samples, records and other evidence to identify sources of outbreaks. It's hard to know if the problems stemmed from bureaucratic inertia, poor management, insufficient funding, or some combination of those.

It's also difficult to tell whether another deputy commissioner for foods would have done things differently than Ostroff. But in his email to the FDA staff, Gottlieb said Ostroff had provided him with valuable counsel on a range of important issues. "Throughout my time as Commissioner, I’ve relied on Dr. Ostroff’s deep experience, thoughtful perspective, and strong leadership during many complicated and pivotal policy discussions, food outbreaks, and recall events,” Gottlieb said.

Frank Yiannas also has a long resume in food safety, but his experience has been in the private sector. Before joining Walmart in 2008, he was director of safety and health for Walt Disney World for 19 years. He is well-known in the food safety arena, has written several books on the subject and is a past president of the International Association for Food Protection.
At Walmart, Yiannas has focused on using blockchain technology to provide supply chain traceability. As a result, the retailer is requiring all fresh, leafy greens suppliers to adopt it by September 2019. Yiannas told Bloomberg that Walmart will be setting similar compliance deadlines for other produce suppliers during the next year.

He may find establishing new directions at a large federal regulatory agency is slower going than at a huge retailer. However, focusing on food policy and response should be a good fit for someone with his background and may put the FDA on a faster track when it comes to getting the food industry to comply with regulations. Gottlieb said Yiannas will be advising him on FSMA implementation and other matters related to food safety and animal health, so there may be some new initiatives coming from their partnership.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler said Ostroff "has been a great champion for food safety for many years and will be missed," and it was "a brilliant move" getting Yiannas to come to the federal government from Walmart. "I have known and respected Frank for years," Marler wrote on his blog. "His commitment to changing the culture of food safety — specifically through transparency — will be welcome at the FDA."

Yiannas touched on his background and philosophy in tweets quoted by Produce Retailer: "Grateful for the leadership lessons learned from a lifetime at Disney and Walmart. And I’m still learning that sometimes to make a bigger difference, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Without change, there can be no progress."