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Multi-stakeholder collaboration is the beating heart of GFSI. The initiative began as a collaboration among a select group of retailers, but it has grown to encompass everyone involved in keeping food safe, including academics like myself. At the first plenary of this year’s GFSI Conference, I will represent the academic perspective among a diverse cast of speakers, all of whom represent important voices in the food safety conversation. I hope to encourage industry delegates in the audience to keep the academic perspective in mind as they work towards the future of food safety.

Seven principles of food integrity

Contrary to the popular image of the academic locked away in an ‘ivory tower’, I’ve made communicating with industry professionals one of the priorities of my career. To that end, I’m fortunate to be located at Queens University, Belfast, an institution that leads the field in industry-academy collaboration. As the founding Director of Queens University’s Institute for Global Food Security, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to food industry leaders, government agencies and decision makers around the world about their key concerns. I’ve used these conversations to codify what I call the Seven Principles of Food Integrity. In brief, the principles are as follows:

  1. The food that we eat is safe.
  2. The food that we eat is nutritious.
  3. The food that we eat is authentic.
  4. We produce our food in a sustainable way.
  5. We produce our food to the highest ethical standards.
  6. We respect and protect our environment.
  7. We respect and protect the people who work in the global food supply system.

As you work through these principles, you may notice that they are not only intrinsically entwined — focusing on one can cause conflict in another. In order to meet all seven principles, businesses must consider the people, environments and raw materials tied to every link in the supply chain. In my talk, I’ll expand upon these principles and consider ways they can be applied to ensure safe and sustainable food, from rice agriculture to the spice industry.

Industry-led collaboration

Of course, it’s one thing to talk about lofty principles through the rose-tinted glasses of academia — it’s quite another for industry to apply these principles to improve food safety on the ground. This disconnect between academic discovery and industry adoption is a pervasive pattern; due to a variety of factors, it can be challenging to translate research into working practices. The issue can begin as soon as researchers choose their areas of focus based on academic interest rather than on real-world needs. The global food system is incredibly complex, and those working on the ground within it understand its daily realities better than anyone else.

GFSI is one of the organisations that are working to bridge the gap between research and reality. Another is the European Institute of Innovation and Technology in Food (EIT Food), a pan-European consortium devoted to driving new ideas in the food sector, including food safety. About 35 of EIT Food’s 50 founding member organisations belong to industry, while the rest are research providers and academic institutions, Queens University among them. We have structured the consortium so that the industry partners start the conversation by identifying areas of concern or opportunity. It’s then the job of the research providers to discover the appropriate innovation to meet the challenge or take advantage of the opportunity. I believe this industry-to-academia structure is the key that will unlock the barriers that remain in place between the two realms.

Starting the conversation

Like EIT Food, the GFSI Conference brings together stakeholders from industry, academia and beyond, covering an even broader international scope. The event is the perfect venue to start those industry-led conversations. I invite delegates from industry to reach out to the academics in attendance to share their day-to-day concerns. That first connection may be the seed of a relationship that leads to real, applicable food safety innovation. In order to develop this relationship, we must learn each other’s language; industry should be aware of the lengthy process behind academic research, and researchers should try to understand the complexities of the food industry.

The conference provides academics the opportunity to achieve this understanding by immersing themselves in the world of industry. I have worked with many academics who have never visited a food processing plant, abattoir or farm, though their research concerns these settings. At Queens University, we embed our students and research staff in industry settings for weeks or months at a time, all to the end of giving them a more complete picture of food production. If you didn’t have this opportunity as a student, you can avail of a version of it at the GFSI Conference. At the plenary and breakout sessions — as well as the networking breaks — industry insiders will offer glimpses into the multilayered systems behind the food we eat.

No matter how experienced you are in your field, the conference surrounds you with people who know more than you about some other sector of the food industry. You’re a student again at the conference, surrounded by over 1,000 potential professors. Who will you learn from in Nice?

This post was written and contributed by:

Professor Chris Elliot
Professor of Food Safety and Founder of the Institute for Global Food Security
Queen’s University
Plenary Speaker at the 2019 GFSI Conference

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