Erica Sheward speaking at the 2020 GFSI Conference
Erica Sheward speaking at the 2020 GFSI Conference

Erica Sheward Fills us in on This Week’s GFSI Conference

The Global Food Safety Initiative director offers insights on what to expect at this week’s virtual event, including seminar highlights, how being remote this year offers new opportunities and more.

March 19, 2021

The Global Food Safety Initiative’s annual conference has been held in some haughty locales. From Seattle in 2020, to Nice, France, in 2019 and Tokyo in 2018. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, your home office, living room couch or dining room table serve as the place to be: The March 23-25 event is completely virtual.

The interactive three-day forum, now in its 20th year, is gearing up to convene hundreds of experts, decision makers and innovators from more than 60 countries to share food safety best practices and encourage ongoing collaboration and action. 

Following an unprecedented 12 months for the food and beverage industry, this year’s theme is "Rethink, Reset, Recharge."

Sessions will be available on demand after the conference, but only for people who registered.

We caught up with GFSI Director Erica Sheward for a look at what to expect.

Q. What are some of the seminar highlights?

A. The program is packed with ambitious sessions covering everything from GFSI-centric initiatives to the future of technology in food safety and everything in between. On day three, there is the opportunity to join the GFSI team and senior food safety leaders to ask GFSI anything. This is the first time we have afforded our community the opportunity to join us for such a format. Of course, beyond the program, we are also excited about the custom-built, 3D platform. We want to make sure delegates have the best possible networking experience and we’re confident what we’re delivering is the closest you can get to the real thing.

Q. Aside from the safety factor, what does being virtual this year add to the experience?

A. Being virtual enables greater opportunities to engage with the conference by those at the “sharp end” of delivering food safety, and for more food safety team members to come as there are no travel times or cost burdens. This is helping us to open up the conference to a new audience, and we are expecting a significant number of first-time attendees. The ability to meet people and network virtually are, as I mentioned, something we know our delegates love about the event and this year will be no different. It is designed to be an immersive experience.

Q. What is the 3D platform? 

A. We have built an immersive 3D environment, which replicates the in-person experience for both delegates and sponsors. Delegates are free to walk around — using their customizable avatars — and talk to people in the networking area or visit the 3D booths and discuss the latest food safety technologies and innovations with our exhibitors and sponsors. We have 26 3D booths that delegates can walk around and engage with. There are private meeting rooms for people to have face-to-face video conversations and plenty of seating around the conference area for people to have a seat and a friendly chat with likeminded peers. You can also simply walk up to people on the conference floor, just like the physical event. 

Q. Can you describe the avatar system a bit more and why it’s fun/cool?

A. It is a much more immersive experience for attendees to be walking and talking virtually like a real person. We love the idea that you can create an avatar to suit your mood and personality. If you are serious about networking, and many of our delegates are, this is the way to go. 

Q. Why is it important for this show to go on, so to speak? Why is it important to have the event?

A. We recognize that our community has the GFSI Conference marked in their calendars year on year. They tell us it is the most important food safety event in the world to them. Additionally, it is essential given the year that has passed and the challenges the food industry continues to face that we facilitate insights, share vital learnings and bring people together to have the food safety conversation. And, as we look back on 12 months of living with the pandemic, a lot has happened since we last met in Seattle at the end of February last year. We could never have imagined how the next 12 months would go, and so it’s important to reflect and provide the necessary support to ensure we continue to advance food safety systems globally.

Q. How has the pandemic changed the quest for global food safety?

A. The pandemic has accelerated thinking about localization of supply chains and the use of technology to solve food safety problems. The quest, however, remains the same — that safe food continues to be available to all in all markets. The pandemic has also highlighted the extent of food inequalities in developing markets. We need to redouble our efforts as a global community of food safety leaders to support those markets more and to lend our collective expertise to building capability. That said, our ambition is to strengthen and harmonize food safety systems so they are able to feed the growing, global population and develop markets that can deliver food safely, no matter where in the world the consumer is. This has not changed because of COVID-19. It has just provided a new context and new challenges for us to work with and overcome.

Q. What sessions/speakers are you most looking forward to?

A. It’s a packed schedule, so it’s difficult to pick out one or two. We really do have something for everyone, whether your interest is retail, e-commerce, supply chains, certification or capacity building. However, that said, I am personally looking forward to Mondelēz International Chairman & CEO, and GFSI Board Co-Sponsor, Dirk Van De Put joining us on day one to share the challenges and opportunities brought by leading a food business during times of crisis. The day two keynote, Dr. Andrew Steel, is also a must-see linking the scientific process of aging to a new vision for an existence that is “ageless.”

Q. What can our readers learn from the variety of sessions and speakers?

A. GFSI prides itself on being a fantastic facilitator of the biggest food safety conversation in the world. Our aspiration would be that attendees have the opportunity to learn first-hand from others like them who are battling the same challenges and come away recognizing that, where food safety is concerned, it is everyone's problem. Finding new people to connect with, sharing opportunities to come together better to deliver more is our best hope and dream. We must work together if we are to secure safe food for people everywhere.