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Over 1,000 food safety stakeholders from around the world gathered in Bellevue, Seattle today for the official opening of the 2020 GFSI Conference! While the United States has hosted more GFSI Conferences than any other country — and is home to some of the organisation’s most passionate supporters — the event has never before taken place in Seattle. The vibrant tech hub has proven to be an ideal venue for this innovation-focused 19th edition of the GFSI Conference, centred around the theme One Connected World. One Safe Food Supply.

Delegates experienced Seattle’s innovative spirit first-hand during yesterday’s Discovery Tours, hosted by three of the six Fortune 500 companies that are headquartered in the greater metropolitan area: Amazon, Costco and Starbucks. Our hosts offered backstage passes to some of their most revolutionary worksites, from the original Costco Warehouse to Amazon’s BFI4 Fulfillment Center, where robots and humans prepare orders in seamless collaboration. At each location, food safety professionals explained the developments that keep consumers safe in step with technological advancements. Those who joined the tour also received a complementary copy of a Kantar Retail Scene Report on Seattle, Washington State & America’s Pacific Northwest. Today’s plenaries continued this focus on technology and innovation, without losing sight of the human element that sets the food sector apart.

GFSI & You: United We Stand

GFSI turns 20 in 2020, and this introductory session offered an opportunity to share the many well-wishes the organisation has received from its supporters around the world. A video montage of greetings from leaders at Codex Alimentarius, the UK FSA and others set a celebratory tone for the day.

2020 also marks a moment of changing in governance and strategy for GFSI, as Peter Freedman, Managing Director of the Consumer Goods Forum, noted in his opening presentation. ‘Action is more urgent than ever’, he said, citing the climate advocate Greta Thunberg as an example. ‘Our agenda remains one of positive change, but we’re trying to increase the urgency with which we enact that change.’

GFSI Director Erica Sheward echoed this urgency in her presentation. Erica, who stepped into her director role in October and is attending her first GFSI Conference this year, asked delegates to leave their commercial interests at the door and work purely towards ‘a world where all food is safe’ for the duration of the event. She invited the audience to stand in recognition of this commitment. Everyone in the packed auditorium took to their feet — a striking visual reminder of our shared mission.

To close the session, Erica joined Mike Robach, Chairman of the GFSI Board, Vice-Chairs Anita Scholte Op Reimer and Gillian Kelleher and GFSI Senior Technical Manager Marie-Claude Quentin around a red ‘action button’ to mark the publication of the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements Version 2020. Version 2020, the first full revision of the requirements since 2017, is available in the GFSI Library now.

Plenary 1: Learning To Lead by Example

The second plenary of the morning featured prominent industry leaders who have used their platforms to inspire food safety culture throughout their organisations. First, delegates heard from Danny Wegman, Chairman of Wegmans Food Markets. Wegmans has adopted a zero-tolerance policy on food safety, and Danny urged everyone in the room to do the same. ‘We must question the status quo’, he said.

Next, two leaders from Kerry Group — Edmond Scanlon, Executive Director and Group CEO and Hugo Gutierrez, Global Chief QSHE Officer took the stage to share the ‘safety first, quality always’ ethos that informs their organisation, as well as their consumer-focused approach. ‘Our industry is undergoing phenomenal change at an unprecedented rate, and this is driven by the end consumer’, Edmond said. ‘This consumer-led revolution is driving transformation and reshaping our industry’.

Hugo introduced some of the tools that Kerry uses to evolve their food safety management systems in step with that transformation, including a holistic food safety assessment process embedded from ideation to the product’s in-use application. ‘The only way we prevent things is if when we design things for the first time, food safety is there’, he said.

Plenary 3: Food Science in Action

Today’s final plenary featured speakers whose careers have granted them insight into many of the roles involved in food safety inspection, from the auditor to the regulatory agent. Their presentations took a nuanced approach to the concept of ‘inspect what you expect’ that encouraged greater utilisation of the data and tools that are available to food safety professionals.

Craig Wilson, Vice President of Costco explained his company’s collaborative approach to building food safety specifications, with input from industry partners, suppliers, regulators and academics. ‘When you get advice, you can’t be afraid to use it’, he said. ‘You can’t be afraid to try something different.’ Peter Taormina, President of Etna Consulting Group offered a useful overview of some of the tools and sources of information that are currently available to the food industry. ‘Don’t underestimate the ability of your supervisors to understand this information … and for it to make a difference in their day to day operations’, he said.

Finally, Paul Kiecker, Deputy Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service shed light on his agency’s data-based approach to food safety inspections. Paul, who began his career with the agency as a facility inspector, is optimistic about the potential for technology to revolutionise the field of inspection. ‘We’re modernising our processes and procedures, embracing emerging technologies and making data more publicly available’, he said.

The session closed with a world premiere of the latest episode of the GFSI Web Series, which profiles the 2019 Global Markets Awards winner Alfa Argentina. Over a soundtrack of Argentine samba, Technical Manager Javier Torres explained how GFSI helped his company translate their passion for quality into a robust food safety culture. The video is available online at GFSI Youtube.

After a networking break, the delegates chose among three linked breakout sessions that delved deeper into concepts related to audits, inspections and expectations. Topics included new tools for the auditor’s arsenal, from artificial intelligence to data analytics, as well as an explanation of the science that underpins food safety standards.

To unwind from a busy, content-packed first day, delegates enjoyed an official opening cocktail in the GFSI Village. Festivities were back in the air during this casual networking session — the trimmings included a 20th birthday cake for GFSI. Though there were not enough slices to serve all 1,000 delegates — a cake that size would be a feat indeed — we hope it inspired many toasts to GFSI and the delegates who form its foundation.

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