The GFSI Conference returns in person for three days of dialogue and networking in Barcelona
BARCELONA, 31 March 2022 — The first in-person GFSI Conference in two years closed this afternoon following three days of discussion around the theme of Delivering Impact for Safe Sustainable Food.
‘I still can’t quite get my head around the fact that after a life-changing pandemic, GFSI has managed to bring us together for a face-to-face, handshake-to-handshake, smile-behind-the-mask, non-Zoom event’, said The Consumer Goods Forum’s GFSI Director Erica Sheward in her heartfelt opening speech, emphasising the food industry’s responsibility to serve and protect the world’s most vulnerable people. That emphasis echoed through the conversations on the conference stage, which remained optimistic but did not shy away from the health, humanitarian and economic crises impacting people and food around the world.
The meeting of over 600 food safety professionals and stakeholders took place on the Mediterranean coast, not far from the 2,000-year-old Port of Barcelona, as shifts in the global supply chain continue to impact ports and other shipping hubs. Speakers reckoned with these shifts in plenaries, breakouts and other sessions, sharing concrete solutions for food safety issues that emerged over the past two years and those that predated the pandemic.
When Safety Meets Sustainability
The theme of the Conference reflected GFSI’s commitment to sustainability in keeping with its status as a Coalition of Action of The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF). The plenary ‘Breaking the Silos Between Food Safety and Sustainability’ shone a spotlight on this theme and acknowledged that the two priorities have tended to clash in the past. In this session and others, leaders from industry, regulatory agencies and the CGF addressed opportunities to combat issues such as climate change, food waste and plastic pollution while maintaining or enhancing safety and quality.
The Conference also made a mantra of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDGs 1 (no poverty), 2 (zero hunger) and 6 (clean water and sanitation). GFSI leadership invited the delegates to recommit to these goals in honour of UN World Food Safety Day on 7 June, and the organisation is conducting a survey to learn how community members will demonstrate their commitments.
UN agencies had a strong showing at the conference – very much in-line with SDG 17 – with the speaker list including leaders from the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Codex Alimentarius Commission. GFSI’s partnerships with these agencies are part of the Race to the Top framework and its efforts to reinforce the organisation’s role as a food safety thought leader.
‘We’re natural partners’, said Steve Wearne, Chairperson of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and Director of Global Affairs at the UK Food Standards Agency. ‘My ask to you is that we together commit to a renewed collaboration with GFSI … because there’s so much we can do together.’
In order to implement these global priorities on the ground, GFSI relies on its Local Groups, which promote the GFSI approach with businesses and governments around the world. Representatives of these groups took the stage in a plenary called ‘World Cafe’, a tour of GFSI’s initiatives in seven regions.
Though each group deals with different local realities, they shared similar goals — including hopes to attract more members. ‘If you want to see real representation and prioritisation of your countries and your regions in the Local Group, then we need you to have a voice within our Local Group and a seat at the table’, said Lindsay Hay, Director of Quality Assurance at PepsiCo and Co-Chair of the EMEA Local Group. ‘Don’t wait to be asked; pull up the chair and join us.’
The Future Is Here
The pandemic accelerated the uptake of technologies that have previously been discussed at GFSI conferences as mere possibilities, such as fully remote audits, food safety training through virtual reality and the mainstream adoption of grocery e-commerce. Two years after the tech-focused conference in Seattle that exhibited innovations like these, they have become accepted parts of our reality. The results of this two-year experiment were discussed in plenaries, breakouts, Special Sessions about specific solutions, and Tech Talks in the Exhibition Hall, as well as at the cutting-edge exhibitors’ booths.
But in the plenary ‘Innovation Across the Food Safety Ecosystem’, Janet Cox, Associate Director of Food Safety & Compliance at the e-commerce food retailer HelloFresh, cautioned against placing too much trust in the machine. ‘People are still vital to food safety’, she said. ‘Tech and innovation cannot replace individuals, and we still need food safety experts within our business.’
Finding and fostering the next generation of these experts was a special concern in the programme. The plenary ‘GFSI’s Strategic Priorities’ turned the attention to auditors, 8,000 of whom form the vanguard of GFSI-recognised certification. The session introduced GFSI’s recent initiative to recognise Professional Recognition Bodies that can assess auditor competence. This model acknowledges ‘the difference between being trained and being competent and opens the possibility of being competent to a variety of experiences and personal stories’, said the CGF’s GFSI Senior Technical Manager Marie-Claude Quentin. Breakouts and other sessions suggested ways to introduce food science to young students so that they may decide to join the pool of food safety professionals when they begin their careers.
The Conference’s final keynote looked further into the future — though perhaps not many decades further, according to space systems researcher Angelo Vermeulen. In 2013, the transdisciplinary artist and scientist was commander of a NASA study that attempted to simulate the conditions of a Mars mission on the slopes of a Hawaiian volcano, and he has had his eyes on the skies ever since. He encouraged delegates to adopt strategies developed for space in their own workplaces — and to consider how space explorers might learn from the food industry. After all, outer space may soon become one of the industry’s markets. ‘So maybe it would be interesting for this group to change the name into the Interplanetary Food Safety Initiative’, he suggested.
When she retook the stage in closing, GFSI Director Erica Sheward called GFSI ‘a precious gem’. ‘We led from the front, we brought the global food safety community face to face for the first time in two years, and we hosted a powerful agenda on food safety and sustainability’, she said, before announcing that the host country for the 2023 event will be the United States. ‘We really are back.’
Watch the event highlights here: https://youtu.be/QPV2jiQp4n8
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