His public health practice is food safety. His public health passion is protecting people.
“I really enjoyed learning about this invisible world that exists around us,” said Yiannas, who graduated the COPH in 2003 with an MPH degree. “I was interested in this idea that there are things we can’t see that can do us harm.”
Yiannas, a first-generation American who was born in New York City but primarily raised in Orlando, started his undergraduate life at USF but later transferred to the University of Central Florida, where he received his bachelor of science in microbiology.
After a couple of roles in product safety at a small pharmaceutical company and later a cosmetic manufacturer, Yiannas landed at Walt Disney World, where he was director of safety and health.
“I was responsible for overseeing all food safety and public health matters for the largest vacation destination in the world,” explained Yiannas. “While I was at Disney, I became interested in the topic of epidemiology—understanding probability, developing a hypothesis and getting evidence-based results. And every time I looked at how I could do my job better, it seemed like all roads pointed to a degree in public health.”
Yiannas chose the USF COPH because of its outstanding national reputation.
“I’m a scientist, so I did my research,” said Yiannas, who did most of his coursework online. “USF kept coming up high on the list. And I had had some undergraduate experience there, so it was an easy choice. If I had to do anything over, the only thing I might do differently is get my MPH sooner.”
Taking a course in social marketing taught by now-retired Distinguished University Health Professor Dr. Carol Bryant was “career-changing,” commented Yiannas.
“You can’t achieve food safety by compliance alone,” Yiannas noted. “You need to understand the principles of human behavior and organizational culture. That class was the most influential of my career. Lessons and principles I learned then I still apply today.”
In 2008 Yiannas left Disney to become vice president of food safety and health for Walmart stores, Sam’s Clubs and Walmart International.
“I went from the happiest place on earth to the busiest place on earth,” Yiannas laughed.
“At Walmart, we have thousands of different types of food products, 11,000 retail establishments, tens of thousands of food suppliers, 2 million associates worldwide and 240 million customers a week. Providing safe and affordable food is daunting,” he added.
Noting that Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, Yiannas says that if there has been a food-safety issue in this country in the recent past, Walmart has been involved—simply by virtue of the sheer volume of food it buys.
“My goal is not so much to react to an incidence in the food system, which we do, nonetheless, with both urgency and precision, but to create preventive interventions.”
To that end, Yiannas is one of the most vocal and ardent supporters of blockchain technology, a new and emerging database often described as a distributed, tamper-proof and decentralized ledger that tracks transactions and allows for the traceability of food.
“With food traceability today, it’s one step up and one step back [where the food was sold and where it came from before it was sold],” Yiannas explained. “And a lot of these records are kept on paper. There’s no uniformity, and sometimes the records are incomplete. This can make tracing a food back to its source during an outbreak of something like salmonella or E. coli time consuming. In fact, it can take up to a week. But when you capture all the information on a blockchain, you can trace a product back to its source in 2.2 seconds. That’s good for all stakeholders in the food system.”
It’s this emphasis on blockchain technology, recently instituted at Walmart, that Yiannas says he most proud of.
“This will lead to greater responsibility and accountability,” explained Yiannas. “I think it will usher in a new era in food traceability and transparency. And transparency in public health is a good thing.”
In November, Yiannas headed to the Food and Drug Administration, taking on the role of deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
“The roles are similar, yet different,” said Yiannas. “The mission of food safety is the same, but instead of reporting to 240 million customers each week, I’ll be serving nearly 330 million Americans every day. What I love about my work is that it deals with more than food safety. It’s about improving quality of life.”
Alumni Fast Five
What did you dream of becoming when you were young?
I was convinced I would be a shortstop for the New York Yankees.
Where would we find you on the weekend?
At home or visiting family.
What is the last book you read?
“Ethereum,” by Ben Abner
What superpower would you like to have?
There are so many, but I would probably say the ability to be transported over geographic boundaries and time.
What is your all-time favorite movie?
“Gladiator.” I like the idea of standing up for freedom and what you believe in.
Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health