Last week, after six months of planning, the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland jointly hosted the entirely virtual GFSIER Conference 2021.
I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who attended over the three days. As a team, the Incidents and Resilience Unit are delighted to have had 650 registered delegates representing over 80 countries.
It proved really productive and was such a positive experience to meet worldwide counterparts and establish new contacts within the regulatory and food systems.
Aims of the conference
The conference aimed to address how to enhance food safety and food security in a changing world.
It enabled us to come together to explore how we can improve global food security through sharing of best practice, working collaboratively and learning from each other.
The event also focused on keeping food safety incident and crisis response high on the agenda.
Reflecting on the three days and working with my team to plan for the future, I really do think we achieved what we set out to do.
Day one – Food safety regulators around the world
Professor Susan Jebb, FSA Chair, opened the conference discussing the current challenges in the world of food safety.
Co-operation, co-ordination, communication, data sharing and new technologies were all high on the agenda.
Dr Francesco Branca, Head of Nutrition and Food Safety at the World Health Organization, started the response to these challenges by talking about the role of INFOSAN in food safety incidents and the broader food system.
A key conclusion was that, due to the improved technologies and methods to detect and monitor food safety events, there is, and will continue to be, a higher number of food safety incidents statistically.
This does not necessarily mean that there are more food safety events, but rather that more existing events are being detected. This improved detection can only benefit us and our counterparts around the world in improving prevention.
Of course, with the continued rise of global food trade we can expect an increase in complex, international food safety incidents. This alone highlights the importance for nations and stakeholders being actively involved in international food safety networks, allowing us all to open and maintain vital communication channels.
Discussions on the first day covered surveillance and data, new technology in incident management and food authenticity and food crime.
There is a lot of work around surveillance and data happening across the globe and the importance of the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and predicative modelling is key.
We must focus on how we are working and collaborating in the development of ever more sophisticated tools for the sharing of data. We must ensure we keep up with greater demands in the future for analysing and interpretating evidence.
AI will be important in assisting with the resource implications of increased detection of incidents.
Other new technologies highlighted by the conference included new analytical techniques being used to assess food authenticity and identify food fraud, remote surveillance made possible using mobile phone and camera recordings, and whole genome sequencing to identify food outbreaks which in previous years we would never have identified.
Social science is also playing a part in food safety in helping us to understand not just what consumers are eating, but allowing us to listen to consumers and understand their concerns. Overall, I think we are in a good place as regulators to set high standards as we embrace new technology.
Day two – International collaboration and food safety
The conference benefited from input from all four UK devolved nations over the three days. it was useful to hear from the Northern Ireland and Welsh Food Advisory Committees to open day two.
How we work and co-ordinate across the four nations is invaluable and sets an example for how other countries can collaborate both internally and internationally.
The food industry was inevitably at the heart of most discussions covered by the conference.
It was great to hear from Steve Purser from Tesco PLC, to learn about industry priorities and food safety challenges from a different perspective. It was clear that collaboration and information sharing are high on the food industry’s agenda too.
Representatives from industry, regulators and public health authorities then joined me to reflect on best practice and share their top tips from an incident or emergency that they had been involved in. Learning from our own and others’ experience is invaluable, and I hope such lessons have proved useful for all the delegates.
The outbreaks, risk communication and crisis management breakout sessions added further insight as to where we should focus our attention.
We are always aiming for more open data sharing as well as good integration of all available sources including epidemiological, environmental, food chain and microbiological information.
Various platforms exist for sharing genomic data and I see potential for expanding the scope and use of other platforms, including INFOSAN. Communication of risks requires partnership working and we need to consider other nations’ access to systems and capacity to deal with food incidents, while supporting each other to improve where we can.
A phrase used regularly during the conference was ‘honest uncertainty’ and I believe being open and transparent, even when pressed for a quick answer is important.
With the food safety challenges we face, increasing crisis management and incident response is a global challenge, not bound by borders.
We are building new partnerships all the time and I look forward to seeing these relationships develop as we tackle more issues together.
Day three – Global priorities for food safety
The final day of the conference was opened by Ross Finnie, FSS Chair. He provided insight into priorities and challenges for the UK and fellow regulators. This set us up for a day of debate and discussion, allowing us to pull together learnings and objectives to take forward.
Having Dr Peter Ben Embarek, Head of WHO One Health Initiative (OHI) and Steve Wearne, Director, Global Affairs, Food Standards Agency and Vice Chair of Codex Alimentarius Commission present, really brought home how food is a global commodity and how food safety is a global challenge.
To finish we welcomed colleagues from around the globe to give their views on harmonisation and best practice across differing international regulatory systems and future challenges for industry and regulators.
FSA Chief Executive Emily Miles and FSS Chief Executive Geoff Ogle brought the conference to a close as they summed up the debate and shared key learnings and challenges with delegates.
As I reflect on the conference, the things my team and I will take away are:
- the importance of data sharing and the benefits of getting it right;
- the part we play in improving public trust in us as regulators;
- how we can utilise information sources available to us and;
- how we can support countries with less capacity to deal with food incidents.
All in all, a really interesting three days – thank you to everyone involved.