What we know and what we believe matters, but it’s not what matters most. It’s what we do, our actions, that are most important.

If you work in the food industry, you’ve probably viewed Netflix’s, Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food. If you haven’t yet—you should.

As Netflix was producing the film, I had the opportunity to provide my viewpoint on food safety from my experience serving as deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Why did I sit for an interview on a topic that the FDA has been criticized about? Because government officials have an obligation to tell the American public the truth and answer their questions, particularly as it relates to their health and well-being.

The film makes very important points, and I’m grateful to have been included. As is often the case in documentaries, the producers likely had to contend with copious hours of footage during the editing process, so it’s not surprising that much of what I said ended up on the cutting room floor. That’s the nature of the beast with filmmaking, and while I recognize and applaud the strengths of this film, I do find myself wanting to have an even bigger conversation about food safety and spend more time on the solution side of this equation—prevention.

The movie does a very good job conveying the truth about the tragic and deadly consequences of foodborne illnesses. Foodborne illnesses can be much more than stomach flu; they can be life threatening. Every year in the United States, there are an estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illness. That number alone is horrific, but it doesn’t convey that behind every number or case reported, there’s a real face or person and a preventable, sometimes tragic story. When it comes to food safety, it’s about real risks and real consequences to real people. And not only to the person who becomes ill but, as the documentary highlights, to their loved ones as caretakers of a victim and the mental, physical, and emotional toll associated with their loss or injury.

The film does an excellent job spotlighting that there are still too many foodborne illnesses in our country, making the case for greater effort and investment by both industry and government officials in prevention.

The documentary also paints an accurate view that the “just cook paradigm” is outdated for the 21st century. We cannot blame the consumer for foodborne illnesses. Sure, I’m a believer in a shared responsibility for food safety and a proponent of consumer education and safe food handling in the home. But in today’s modern food system, where contaminated food can be shipped to millions of homes, all efforts must be made to further reduce the prevalence of human pathogens in raw animal proteins, even if they are intended to be cooked, due to the potential for cross contamination and undercooking.

Yet, for everything Poisoned got right, there are details missing that I wish would have been included.

The Evolution of Food Safety. While I like to think of myself as a food safety futurist, I know it’s important to study and learn from the past. I’m the first to acknowledge that more must be done to reduce the burden of foodborne illnesses in our nation, yet the film didn’t acknowledge the tremendous progress made in years past, largely driven by advancements in science. If you look at the battle against foodborne disease over time, tremendous progress has been made, especially over the past century. But food safety doesn’t stand still. Foodborne pathogens evolve, the food system changes, our ability to detect foodborne illnesses gets better, and our scientific understanding continues to advance. Therefore, we must remain laser-focused on accelerating prevention.

Modern Times Require Modern Approaches. Yes, it’s true and unacceptable that reductions in foodborne illnesses stalled over the past two decades. The food safety battles we face today are different. They’re increasingly complex and won’t be solved with old-school thinking or last century’s traditional inspectional approaches. That’s why during my time in public service, I focused on more modernized and targeted regulations such as a new Agricultural Water Standard (since water is often a conduit of produce-related outbreaks) and a first-of-its-kind, final Food Traceability Rule. My team also launched the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety, where we explored leveraging new and emerging technologies to solve some of today’s more pressing public health challenges.

As an example, while at the FDA, we conducted several pilots that showed that by leveraging artificial intelligence, specifically machine learning, we could increase our ability to predict which shipments of imported seafood would be violative by approximately 300% and provide a quantum-leap level of protection for the American people—not by employing more resources or doing more inspections, but by working smarter. It’s my hope that both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continue to explore and implement Smarter Food Safety approaches.

PublicPrivate Collaboration. The film portrays food safety failures on the part of both industry and government, but missed the opportunity to emphasize that the greatest breakthroughs happen through public and private collaboration. I witnessed this firsthand while at the FDA, whether it was working with Operation Warp Speed during the pandemic or through our private–public data sharing platform called 21 Forward during the infant formula shortage crisis, to help ensure that available infant formula made it to store shelves for parents and caregivers.

In a crisis, whether it’s a natural disaster or food safety, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the private or public sector, we’re all working for the same boss—the American consumer. And they expect and need us to work together.

The Need for a Single Food Safety Agency. Poisoned hinted at the fragmented nature of the regulatory oversight system in the United States but neglected to offer or highlight solutions.

There is no doubt that a unified, single food safety strategy is in the best interest of our nation. Think about this example: A frozen pizza that contains cheese and pepperoni is subject to continuous inspection by USDA, but frozen pizza with cheese only (no meat) is inspected by the FDA as a non-high-risk food once every five years. These differences are not based on science, nor risk. But it’s more than just who regulates and inspects what foods. Why is a pepperoni pizza subjected to continuous inspection, yet something as critical as powdered infant formula is, at best, inspected only once per year? It’s time we moved toward a more risk-based, data-driven compliance approach, putting more oversight on products that pose the greatest risk to the consumers.

Making our food supply as safe as it can possibly be is critically important for consumers, food producers, and our nation. We’ve all heard it said—food security is national security. My wish is that Poisoned leads to bigger, deeper, critical conversations on the safety of our food supply and spurs greater investments in protection. The American public deserves nothing less. And maybe, just maybe, it leads to Poisoned 2: The Truth About the Safety of Your Food … and Everything That’s Being Done About It.ft

The opinions expressed in Dialogue are those of the author.

About the Author

Frank Yiannas, MPH, served as deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the U.S. FDA from 2018 to 2022, and in senior food safety and policy roles at Walmart and Disney.