Editor’s note: Following is a roundup of some of the topics discussed at this year’s conference of the Global Food Safety Initiative.

SEATTLE — When it came to panels at the Global Food Safety Initiative conference there were plenty of questions about the coronavirus, and how it will impact food safety. However, there were few answers.

The CEOs of the various companies and food safety experts said they are in a “wait and see” mode. When asked to speculate, they said they imagine the largest impact will be on maintaining shipping schedules in the food industry — with workers getting sick there can be missed shipments and factory delays.

Some conference attendees, including a few speakers and award recipients, were unable to attend because of current travel bans related to the COVID-19 situation.

Another topic frequently brought up during panel discussions at this year’s GFSI conference was sustainability. Companies and food safety workers have recognized that there is a growing list of challenges that will be faced in the future during a resource crunch.

Some of the challenges:

Growing needs

  • Population growth, urbanization, booming middle class
  • changing diets, fewer grains

The planet’s limits

  • Climate change
  • Water scarcity
  • Land use issues, pollution, deforestation
  • Resource constraints are hitting businesses. Need to do more with less.

The question raised by company leaders was, “How can we resolve these issues while growing our business? “

The answer from panelists was harsh and direct — companies need to balance profit with purpose. This means that overcoming challenges depends on companies putting aside their individual interests and working with others.

Food safety and technology
At the 2020 GFSI conference, panels often talked about how technological advances are coming and will help food safety, but they are not the complete solution. A panel consisting of Leslie Bourquin from the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University, Ana Allende, member of the Spanish National Research Council, Gillian Kelleher, vice president of Food Safety and QA at Wegmans Food Markets, and  Natalie Dyenson, vice president of Food Safety and QA at Dole Food Co., fielded questions on how technology is advancing food safety and what its limitations are.

The panel explained that some things simply can’t be done by machine — harvesting heads of romaine lettuce was one of their examples.

They said that new technology can’t completely mitigate foodborne pathogens. Kelleher adding however that, “we need to understand more. Certainly, on the traceability front.” She said that traceability will help raise the bar on the quality of products coming from suppliers. “We see fabulous suppliers out there, and there are others that aren’t.”

When asked if there is a particular pathogen focus for new technological advances, Allende said, “We don’t focus on a specific pathogen or the organism, but we do focus on fixing the processes.” She went on to list the current food safety focus in Europe. “The treatment of the water. And listening to our customers.” She says that these are improvements that can be made to help prevent foodborne illness.

Dyenson explained that the best way to create good food safety is through prevention: “There’s no kill step but it’s about prevention.” And the panel seemed optimistic that new technology and research will help.

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