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The GFSI Conference 2020 drew to a close this afternoon, after three days packed with valuable content and opportunities to connect. The 19th edition brought new features and new faces to the long-running event, in keeping with GFSI’s recent shifts in strategy and governance.

A Birthday at a Turning Point

Held on the year of GFSI’s 20th birthday, the GFSI Conference 2020 was punctuated with celebration. The first plenary, GFSI and You, featured a birthday video that montaged the dozens of well-wishes GFSI has received from supporters around the world, and the opening cocktail included a 20th birthday cake. The official dinner and reception at the Fremont Foundry, sponsored by Greenfence, was as lively a birthday party as GFSI could hope for.

However, the celebratory atmosphere never impinged upon a focus on practical action, as Director Erica Sheward reminded delegates in her impassioned opening address. Erica, who was inducted in October 2019 and is attending her first GFSI Conference this year, announced the ‘Race to the Top’ mentality that the organisation has recently adopted. ‘In broad terms, we are moving to ensure that we all achieve explicit oversight of what good looks like’, she said.

Then, together with Senior Technical Manager Marie-Claude Quentin, Board of Directors Chair Mike Robach and Vice-Chairs Gillian Kelleher and Anita Scholte Op Reimer, she unveiled Version 2020 of the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements, the first full revision since 2017.

One Connected World. One Safe Food Supply.

As Peter Freedman, Managing Director of the Consumer Goods Forum, reminded the audience at the compelling opening plenary, ‘Action on positive change is getting more and more urgent’ around the world. In keeping with the annual theme, this year’s programme took delegates on a series of journeys around the world to meet the players who are enacting that change.

GFSI recognised four such positive actors at the fourth annual Global Markets Awards. Three of the four winners, who are based in Ethiopia, Argentina, Ukraine and China, travelled to Seattle to receive their awards from Mike Robach and Mitch Chait, CEO of awards sponsor Greenfence. Two of last year’s winners also made appearances in new episodes of the GFSI Web Series, set in Argentina and Nigeria. The scenic documentary shorts, made possible by Orkin, premiered during plenaries 3 and 4 and are available on GFSI Youtube now.

Other sessions featured prominent figures from industry, intergovernmental bodies and aid organisations that are working to inspire change on regional and global scales. Delegates heard from Danny Wegman, Chairman of Wegmans Food Markets, and Edmond Scanlon, Executive Director and Group CEO at Kerry Group in Plenary 2: Lessons in Leadership. They also learned about food safety challenges in some of the least-served regions of the world from leaders at Codex Alimentarius, the UN World Food Programme and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Plenary 4: Food Safety in Our Connected World. For more international perspectives, delegates needed only to talk to their 1000+ fellow attendees, who hailed from over 50 countries.

In a Tech Hub, a Focus on Technology

Seattle, one of the world’s most vibrant tech hubs, proved to be an ideal venue for the GFSI Conference, always a showcase for the cutting-edge of food safety technology. Speakers and delegates from several of the Fortune 500 companies that are headquartered in Seattle, including Costco, Starbucks and Amazon, helped to imbue the event with their hometown flavour. Delegates had the rare opportunity to glimpse these companies’ internal operations during the pre-conference Discovery Tours.

At Plenary 5: Technology at the Service of Food Safety, a tag team of five Amazon subject matter experts took turns explaining the machine learning tools that their company uses for food safety. Chance Kelch, Director of Product Management, repeated what he called ‘the one takeaway’ of the presentation: ‘Machine learning can only predict the tasks which you train it to do’, he said.

Amazon was far from the only innovative company to share its solutions for food safety during the conference. Plenary 3, Inspect What We Expect, and its linked breakouts focused on science-based, data-supported best practices for food safety management, while Plenary 6, Trust in a Changing World and its breakouts considered data-based ways to understand and meet consumer expectations. This tech focus continued outside of the plenaries, from morning Special Sessions to networking break Tech Talks, not to mention the lively GFSI Village.

The programme also included a new format for showcasing technology: a series of Shark Tank-style breakout sessions in which food safety innovators pitched their solutions to leaders from prominent brands. The winner of the pitch competition, selected by audience votes, was announced during the final plenary of the conference. Congratulations to Christine Charlotte Akselsen, CEO of Kezzler!

This final plenary, Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future, moved beyond the cutting edge to consider the food safety of tomorrow. Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner of the US FDA, and Dr. Mindy M. Brashears, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, shared their agencies plans to modernise in step with the changing food industry. Jason Dorsey, generations researcher and speaker, and Barbara Chamberlin, Ph.D. offered novel ways to reach members of the young generations who will become the food safety professionals of the future.

The session closed with a passing of the baton, as longtime Chair Mike Robach and Co-Chairs Anita Scholte Op Reimer and Gillian Kelleher yielded their positions to a new team of leaders: Co-Chairs Craig Wilson of Costco and Roy Kirby of Mondelēz International and Vice-Chairs Carletta Ooton of Amazon and Monique Pellegrino of Danone. The chairs and co-chairs are evenly split between the manufacturing and retail sectors, better aligning with CGF’s rules for parity-based governance. ‘The only reason why there are two co-chairs’, quipped Roy, ‘is that the only way you’re going to fill Mike Robach’s shoes is with four feet.’

‘What comes next?’ asked Erica in the last moments of the conference. ‘We are not slowing down. We move forward aggressively, rigorously, actively, to shape and craft our new vision for how GFSI will interact with food safety to deliver on our mission with all of you, with all of our partners, for safe food for consumers everywhere.’

With such an imperative, who knows how far we will have come in a year’s time? We look forward to finding out at the GFSI Conference 2021, and to seeing you in Singapore!

See our Day 1 Roundup

See our Day 2 Roundup

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