From the biggest thing since Pasteur, to a new world of regulation, via insights into some of the biggest food safety crises of recent years - the 15th edition of the Global Food Safety Conference delivered on its promise to take delegates on a journey. The 1,000 attendees from 63 countries around the world travelled through lessons learned, food safety hot topics, new challenges facing the industry and impending disruptions.
Over the course of the packed four-day programme, the audience was invited to zoom in on scientific, political, operational, and technological subjects, and to zoom out and look at the big picture. Ultimately GFSC delegates were called upon to “make the change” towards achieving the global food safety vision.
Why would so many specialists from around the globe descend upon Berlin in winter to talk about food safety? If asked, the first answer is often that they love the networking and that business opportunities with key decision-makers abound. When nudged, they admit that they also enjoy learning about the very latest trends and sharing insights on the industry’s most pressing issues. Many say they leave inspired to take food safety forward throughout the year and they share all of that with their colleagues.
GFSC 2016 introduced BBC journalist Adam Shaw @AdamShawBiz to the food safety crowd in the role of conference moderator. He brought a fresh approach to the enjoyment of all present as his questioning drew out new insights from presenters who were perhaps better accustomed to a more comfortable corporate approach. Speaker after speaker faced his good-humoured grilling after their presentations as they had to answer his tough questions.
The conference benefited from a high-level speaker line-up including Olaf Koch @OGKoch, Chairman of the Management Board Metro AG, Chris Elliot @QUBFoodProf, Professor Vice Chancellor Faculty of Medicine, Health & Life Sciences Belfast, Queen's University, Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel from the Federal Institute of Risk Assessment, Daniel Diermeier @DanielDiermeier, Dean, Harris School of Public Policy and Emmett Dedmon Professor of Public Administration, Northwestern University, and Adjiedj Bakas @AdjiedjBakas, Futurologist, trendwatcher and author.
The principle technical theme was that 'Big Data' is perhaps not quite here yet but it is coming very quickly indeed. It sounds like IT jargon and is almost incomprehensible in its scale but its impact is set to revolutionise food safety management. In an extraordinary session on Day One a series of speakers found it difficult to hide their growing excitement as they described the start of a new era. They took delegates through the use of genomic surveillance which is transforming our ability to detect and solve food safety problems.
In a panel session, Mike Taylor of the FDA in the USA, well known to delegates after many years of active engagement with GFSI, matched their enthusiasm and said that the current level of global collaboration will change everything. He even told Guy Poppy of the FSA in the UK that he wanted the first refusal on a medicinal tomato. There followed a series of phrases from the FSA's Chief Scientific Advisor never before heard at GFSC: 'Digital catapult’, 'Citizen science' and even 'Gut ecology.' A question from the floor summed up the session: "This is the biggest thing since Pasteur, the Global Microbial Identifier is a revolution."
The regulators also astonished the conference, at least in their own quiet (and firm) way. During the early GFSCs the presence of both speakers and delegates from the public authorities was rare. That's now history as Mike Robach of Cargill, the new GFSI Chair, shared the news that the GFSI Board had met the day before with 15 governments. For food safety trend spotters that's a ground-breaking moment that truly launches GFSI as a public-private partnership. The message from the regulators was clear; certifications to schemes recognised by GFSI are now considered in their risk assessments.
The private standards have moved from threat to opportunity. The days of identify and punish were past (though always an option!) and the concept of understand and prevent has arrived. Mike Robach was challenged by Adam Shaw about the reality of this apparent public-private harmony. Surely, this was too good to be quite true? His response: "We produce the food and the government does not. We take accountability for food safety."
Beyond metagenomes and new legislation there were more great learnings. GFSI has achieved many things in its 15 years but it has not created a zero risk environment. Risk has an unfortunate and unwelcome offspring called crisis, which will always be a part of the working life for many of the delegates. It’s a unique experience to listen to the case studies that you've read about and to hear the personal experience of those who handled them.
The enemy of successful crisis management, in the modern world of social media, is complacency and arrogance. This was a fascinating session which included a clip of the conference moderator inadvertently flying a fighter jet upside down because he was looking at his instruments rather than out of the window. An apt metaphor.
There was much talk from the companies of achieving trust through transparency which consumer champion Professor Jorgen Schlundt countered, saying it would be better to just get on and solve problems instead, as the Danish egg producers had with salmonella. They didn’t wait for regulations, they just went ahead and did the right thing at their own expense. Wouldn’t that be a better way to build trust? For the GFSC that provoked an unprecedented round of applause.
The final plenary session stretched the imagination and challenged our 'normal' world. Adjiedj Bakas @AdjiedjBakas astonished with his vision of a future in just 20 years where technology and innovation push aside conventional assumptions. In nature it's not the strongest animal that survives, it's the one that can adapt. Taking it one step further, he encouraged the room to not only experience the shift, but to make the change happen.
See the GFSC 2016 Story
See related Press Releases:
The Global Food Safety Conference Leads Industry in Tackling Future Challenges
GFSI and UNIDO Move Forward on a Strategic Cooperation for Far-Reaching Food Safety Capacity Building
Watch the GFSC videos sponsored by 3M Food Safety on the GFSI YouTube channel
Were you at the Global Food Safety Conference? Share your thoughts via #GFSC2016
The GFSC 2016 Photo Gallery is now available. Stay tuned for Global Food Safety Conference Executive Summary