PARIS, 25th March 2021 — The 2021 GFSI Conference closed this afternoon after three days of productive discussion around the theme Food Safety: Rethink, Reset, Recharge. This year’s edition marked the 20th anniversary of the Global Food Safety Initiative’s premier annual event and its first time taking place online. Hosted on a purpose-built virtual venue, the event maintained the high-quality content that the GFSI Conference is known for and reinforced its reputation as the world’s leading conversation for food safety.
Looking Back on a Year in Flux
Much has changed since the 2020 GFSI Conference, which took place in Seattle just weeks before governments in the United States and elsewhere began to enforce lockdowns against the spread of Covid-19. The 2021 conference served as a retrospective of the ways companies around the world learned to adapt to the year’s challenges and continue to provide safe food to their consumers.
‘When the pandemic was biting and stores were empty, we kept it safe’, reminded Howard Popoola, Vice President of Corporate Food Technology and Regulatory Compliance at The Kroger Co., during one of the conference’s first plenaries. ‘We deserve to give ourselves a pat on the back.’
Subsequent sessions shared pandemic case studies from companies at every link in the food supply chain, including multinationals like Nestlé, Mars, Incorporated and Mondelēz International, conference partner Ecolab, and e-commerce-based businesses that grew exponentially due to changing shopping habits, such as HelloFresh and Amazon. A key takeaway from these sessions, reiterated by CEOs and food safety professionals alike, was the importance of finding positive opportunities in challenging times. ‘I have this saying: Never let a good crisis go to waste’, said Dirk Van de Put, CEO of Mondelēz International, during the plenary ‘Leading in Times of Crisis: Stories of Resilience in the Face of Covid-19’. ‘We used this opportunity to accelerate our strategy and put in place a number of things that we knew were going to help us when we get out of this to be a much stronger company.’
The conference also served as a platform for GFSI to share the changes that it has enacted since 2020. The third day of the event included several Ask GFSI sessions, a new form of programming in which GFSI leaders and insiders fielded questions from a Zoom-based audience. Topics included the Race to the Top Framework — unveiled last year in Seattle — the modernisation of the Global Markets Programme, the outputs of the Government-to-Business meetings that began in 2016 and more.
Innovating for the Future
Rather than remaining in the past, however, the conference was forward-facing in its overall tone and turned an optimistic look towards the future. Much of the programme was devoted to promising new developments in food safety and food science, not only in the virtual auditorium that hosted the plenaries but also in the 3D exhibition halls, Special Sessions with representatives from innovative companies, and the 15-minute Tech Talks that offered focused overviews of specific food safety solutions.
‘Innovation is really the future and where we need to find those solutions to unanswered problems so that our customers can continue to thrive’, said John Guttery, Senior Vice President of Enterprise Initiatives for Ecolab, during a plenary titled ‘The Rising Stars of Food’, one of several that highlighted emerging entrepreneurs. This session introduced the Techstars Farm-to-Fork Accelerator, a mentorship-driven programme that supports startups in fields including food safety, agricultural technology and waste management. The accelerator’s Managing Director Brett Brohl, himself an experienced entrepreneur and investor, had a call-to-action for larger companies: ‘If you’re a big corporation, you have to innovate’, he said. ‘You have to be willing to help founders and understand that by helping founders, you are actually going to help yourself.’
There was also an emphasis on the potential of GFSI and the food industry to assist organisations such as WHO and FAO in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, supporting World Food Safety Day, and improving health outcomes around the world. Dr. Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, set the tone for this emphasis. ‘I like the title of your conference: Food Safety: Rethink, Reset, Recharge. I add another: Redouble your efforts’, he said in his keynote. ‘We need strong engagement from the private sector for our agrifood systems to become more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable.’
The optimism reached a zenith in the inspirational keynote by Andrew Steele, scientist and author of ‘Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old’. His bestselling book explores the field of senolytics, a class of molecules under research that may be able to remove senescent cells — cells that have aged past the ability to divide — and thereby prevent diseases associated with ageing, such as dementia and stroke. ‘Stay healthy, try and be alive in time for these medicines and raise the profile of this field to make us all have the ability to live longer, healthier lives’, Andrew advised.
Despite being virtual, the conference did not lack networking opportunities. Delegates built custom avatars and used them to explore four immersive exhibition halls, complete with interactive booths, a selfie station and microphone-enabled tables and benches for casual chats. The virtual platform soon felt familiar, and delegates took advantage of its functionality to connect with peers and discuss real-world next steps.
The main themes of the conference, said GFSI Director Erica Sheward in her closing remarks, were ‘trust, transparency, collaboration and respecting everyone’s views, even when we don’t all agree. We are all here for the same thing: safe food for everyone.’ She also mentioned a bold new move for the organisation: GFSI is starting a new chapter as a Coalition of Action under The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF). Led by a new Steering Committee of retailers and manufacturers from CGF membership, the CGF Coalition of Action on Food Safety will work to accelerate improvement in the food safety system and help feed the world’s growing population.
By the opening of the next GFSI Conference in 2022, the Coalition expects to have made a significant impact on the food industry’s ability to provide safe food to consumers everywhere. On behalf of the entire CGF team, we look forward to seeing you there.