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Alumni Spotlight: Frank Yiannas Uses Blockchain to Makes Sure the Food on Your Table is Safe

By Keith Morelli

Frank Yiannas

TAMPA (May 18, 2018) -- Keeping track of food that ends up on the tables of more than 260 million customers in 28 countries and making sure that food is untainted and just plain delicious is the job of Frank Yiannas, a USF alumnus who now is vice president of food safety at Walmart.

He has overseen all food safety as well as other public-health functions for the world's largest food retailer since 2008. Before that, he was director of safety and health for Walt Disney World.

"I like to say I went from the happiest place in the world," he said, "to the busiest place in the world."

Yiannas recently was a guest speaker at the Florida Business Analytics Conference in the University of South Florida's Marshall Student Center. The event was sponsored by the Muma College of Business's Center for Analytics and Creativity. In his presentation, Yiannas told nearly 400 attendees about his job and the development of blockchain technology that has the potential to transform the way supply chains are managed around the world.

A visit to his Tampa alma mater brought back memories, he said.

"I remember walking around this campus in 1984," he said. "One night, Sting was doing a concert in the Sun Dome and I saw him that afternoon playing tennis outside. Can you believe that? I love Florida."

He received a bachelor's degree in microbiology from the University of Central Florida in Orlando and a masters' degree in public health from USF in 1984. Though he is a registered microbiologist with the American Academy of Microbiology, his interest in public health and his graduate degree from USF, where he was afforded "some valuable insights in learning," wound up steering his career.

While most public-health graduates are destined for the public sector, Yiannas found a home in private industry. Now, at Walmart, he's more than just a business executive. The importance of his work can be the difference between losing and making tens of millions of dollars on any given week, or even day. Making sure the food found on the shelves of Walmart is safe is his life's work.

"I generally say that I'm a public-health guy working for Walmart," he said. To achieve the goal of providing safe food to customers, Yiannas has implemented blockchain – a developing technology that many agree might be the wave of the future – into the food supply chain in the world's largest retailer. He is forging the path for this game-changing technology, he said.

"We've had blockchain for about two years," he said, "and now we have the largest body of work on how blockchain works."

He described the technology as "a decentralized, distribution, digitized ledger." Simply put, it is a record of food supply from its origins to the moment it is sold, available to everyone along the way who plays a production/distribution role. It can trace food items along a supply chain within seconds. If there is a problem with food safety, like the recent nationwide Romaine lettuce/E coli scare, blockchain can immediately isolate the problem and prevent tainted materials from reaching the shelves. Further, it can determine where the problem originated, he said.

Before blockchain, records were largely kept on paper, he said, and determining where tainted foods originated often took weeks and even months, he said. The Romaine lettuce scare began over a month ago and inspectors still aren't 100 percent sure of the origins, he said.

Yiannas also serves as an adjunct professor for the online graduate food-safety program at Michigan State University. He has published two books, "Food Safety Culture, Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System" in 2009 and "Food Safety = Behavior, 30 Proven Techniques to Enhance Employee Compliance" in 2015. He is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences.

In 2008, Yiannas was the recipient of the Collaboration Award given by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and a year earlier, he won the National Science Foundation's International Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Food Safety. In 2001, while he was at Disney, Yiannas won the prestigious Black Pearl Award for Corporate Excellence in Food Safety given by the International Association for Food Protection.

In 2015, he received the Industry Professional Food Safety Hero Award by STOP Foodborne Illness. He is the past president of the International Association for Food Protection and a past vice-chair of the Global Food Safety Initiative.

He said returning to USF to be a guest speaker was a treat that he could not pass up.

"When USF called, it was an automatic yes," he said. "I have very fond memories of this place."