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2018 is a year of superlatives at the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) Global Food Safety Conference, which kicked off its 17th edition at the Grand Nikko Hotel Tokyo Daiba today. Some 1200 delegates passed through the registration desks this morning, comprising the highest attendance rate in the history of the event. The delegates hailed from over fifty countries and from every corner of the food industry: multinationals and SMEs, retailers and manufacturers, research labs and regulatory agencies. While this record-breaking attendance is hardly a surprise — the event has grown steadily since its first iteration in 2001 — it is an especially encouraging figure for the first GFSI Conference in Japan.

Japan is only the second Asian country to host a GFSI Conference (after Malaysia in 2015). The event has long alternated between either Europe or North America. This year’s conference attracted a record number of attendees from Japan and elsewhere in Asia, who will leave poised to spark a food safety revolution in the region.

Western stakeholders, meanwhile, were not deterred by the relatively far-flung location. GFSI stakeholders are food-focused people, after all, and Japan has one of the richest and most innovative food cultures in the world. Many attendees had the opportunity to experience this culture first-hand during Monday’s Discovery Tours, which navigated guests through the past and present of Japanese food and contextualised the insights of today’s sessions.

Pre-Conference Session: Building a Global Perspective

The morning opened with an introductory pre-conference session, led by Peter Freedman, Managing Director at The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), Mike Robach, Vice President of Food Safety, Quality and Regulatory Affairs at Cargill, and Andy Ransom, CEO of Rentokil Initial. Intimately titled GFSI & You, the first half of the two-hour session served as a refresher course on the mission and activities of the Global Food Safety Initiative. The speakers covered the initiative’s origins, its recent achievements, and the bright future open to companies that choose to implement its principles.

The second half of the session was devoted to panel discussions featuring stakeholders from every sector of the GFSI world. First, a broadly international panel of Certification Programme Owner (CPO) leaders discussed their input in Version 7.2 of GFSI’s Benchmarking Requirements. This recently released version streamlines elements of the previous edition to promote flexibility, efficiency and practicality. The second panel was comprised of representatives from Local Groups, who Mike Robach lauded as the ones who “do all the work” at GFSI. True to this praise, the representatives related the intensive, focused work involved in bringing GFSI principles to their regions, from hosting Focus Days to harmonising standards with local governments. To close the session, a panel of key partners from international governmental and nongovernmental agencies described their methods for incorporating the GFSI approach into their daily practices. The partners painted a hopeful picture of a world in which the public and private sectors work in tandem toward a shared goal of safe food for consumers everywhere.

Their appetites whet by this appetiser of an introduction, the attendees left ready for a full course menu of conference content.

Enterprising attendees used the lunch hour to enjoy some Tech Talks, a series of brief, technology-focused presentations in the Exhibition Area. Ruediger Hagedorn of the CGF introduced the audience to tools and concepts that facilitate content exchange in value networks, based on his experiences with the E2E Learning Series. François Deprey of GS1 and Guillaume Ardillon of Terrena then took the small stage to expound upon the benefits of GS1 France’s new collaborative traceability platform. Terrena’s consumers can use the platform to trace each product along its complete life cycle, fostering unprecedented levels of transparency and visibility. The open platform is ready to encompass every emerging platform of the moment, from blockchain and Big Data to IoT and AI.

Opening Plenary: Localising Food Safety Culture

Satiated by tech and onigiri, the delegates reconvened for the much-anticipated Opening Plenary: “Food Safety Culture and Leadership”. They were jolted out of their post-lunch drowsiness by a surprise video message from the Prime Minister of Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe positioned the conference as a natural expression of Japan’s longstanding safeguards for food safety, beginning in ancient times with innovations such as antibacterial bamboo leaves. He suggested that international food safety certification will allow the rest of the world to trust the food products that Japanese consumers already recognise as safe. This confident prediction regarding Japan’s food safety culture would be reiterated over the course of the plenary.

The sessions scheduled speakers were almost as illustrious as the surprise guest. They included some of biggest names in Japan’s food industry: Motoya Okada, President and Group CEO of AEON, Takaaki Nishi, President and CEO of Ajinomoto, and Ken Theriault, CEO of Costco Japan. Ryousuke Kouzuki, Japan’s Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, represented the public sector and added another star to the lineup. The speakers shared their nuanced perspectives on food safety culture, a particularly salient topic as GFSI increases its presence in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. Moderator Sharanjit Leyl, an international news journalist based in Singapore, led the speakers through a productive discussion that weighed Japanese consumers’ food safety expectations against international standards. After several thoughtful reflections on the deep-set, cultural roots of Japan’s concern with food safety, Leyl prompted the speakers to predict how their companies would adapt to the future. The speakers’ extemporaneous responses gestured towards trends in organic agriculture, globalised markets, and international collaboration, encapsulating the optimistic overtones of the plenary as a whole.

Plenary 2: Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn

After a networking intermission featuring a tech talk by BSI, the curtain opened on Plenary 2: “Are You Actively Listening To Your Customers? You Should Be”. The topic of the hour was customer communication, a perennial concern made all the more relevant by the ubiquity of social media. Sarah Casanova, CEO of McDonald’s Japan, has special insight on the generative capacity of communication; she is widely admired in her field for deftly leveraging customer feedback to rebuild her company’s reputation in the wake of a significant food safety incident. Communication can also foster mutually beneficial collaboration, as Heidi Hovland, CEO of DeVries Global, explained. She introduced the concept of influence and demonstrated how companies can harness its energy to fuel cultural relevance and customer-first product ideas. Carletta Ooton, Vice President Health, Safety, Sustainability, Security and Compliance at Amazon also took the stage. Her presentation spoke to the opportunity of huge volumes of customer communication made possible by eCommerce. She offered up automated monitoring as a solution for companies that field large amounts of feedback — a descriptor that increasingly fits every company with an online presence.

Takashi Ichida of Metro Cash & Carry presented a B2B perspective on the brand-building power of digital communication. His company, which primarily targets food professionals, helps its busy customers build and manage company websites with minimal maintenance. Metro also hosts programs that introduce entrepreneurs to food safety practices, all in the name of “helping the customers win, so Metro will win.”

The evening closed with the traditional GFSI Conference official reception. At this casual networking session, the delegates compared notes on the plenaries, prepared strategies for tackling Wednesday’s concurrent sessions, and nurtured the social bonds that are the true foundation of the Global Food Safety Conference.

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