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The Global Food Safety Initiative – safe food from farm to fork

We spoke with Mike Robach, Chair of the Global Food Safety Initiative’s Board of Directors, about how it enhances food safety through a Global Markets Programme providing a stepwise route towards accredited certification for developing businesses looking to accelerate their transformation.

We spoke with Mike Robach, Chair of the Global Food Safety Initiative’s Board of Directors, about how it enhances food safety through a Global Markets Programme providing a stepwise route towards accredited certification for developing businesses looking to accelerate their transformation.

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) was formed in 2000 amidst a profusion of food safety issues that were plaguing the globe. At the turn of the century the big concern was erosion of consumer trust and not just in the food industry and among retailers. There was a waning confidence in government and fears of government oversight so a group of European retailers came together to tackle the problem and develop a structure around food safety management systems which they could drive down through their supply chains to re-establish confidence in the food they were bringing to the customer. That was the genesis of GFSI and over the years it has grown from its core of European retailers becoming more than just a benchmarking organisation to include many different parts of the supply chain such as manufacturers, retailers, food services, agriculture and food processing alongside meat and poultry companies who have joined. “It’s truly a global consortium of companies that covers the entire supply chain from the farm and origination, all the way through to distribution and directly to the consumer,” explains Mike Robach, Chair of the GFSI’s Board of Directors.

Robach has recently presided over the organisation’s annual conference. This year, GFSI landed in Tokyo where over 1,200 food industry leaders from 50+ countries were in attendance for what has become the meeting place for decision-makers across the food supply chain from both private and public sectors alike. Participants share knowledge, strengthen their networks, showcase their learnings and do business. “Delegates are challenged through thought-provoking talks from a wide range of hand-picked speakers – renowned experts and academics, CEOs from the likes of AEON, Costco, McDonald’s Japan, DeVries Global and the UK Food Safety Agency, public authorities, industry leaders, innovators and grassroots players,” adds Robach who is keen for audiences to gain insight into the latest advances in the science, technology and collaborative tools being leveraged for food safety around the world. “If you are involved in the food industry in any way, chances are you have a role in keeping food safe. Whether your operations are producing, manufacturing, transporting, storing or selling food – or supporting those who do – you play a vital role in protecting the consumer, from farm to fork.”

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Technology can also play a huge role in the industry, enabling improvements to food safety management systems while enhancing the way we can detect and track products and problems. What wider role can technology play in strengthening security across the supply chain and protecting product authenticity? “We’re looking at new developments like blockchain and assessing how we can incorporate them into what we do. We did a blockchain pilot in the US in the turkey business at my company Cargill,” explains Robach, Cargill’s VP, Corporate Food Safety, Quality and Regulatory Affairs. “We were able to label packages of whole turkey with information about the provenance of the bird, the farm it came from etc. We got a lot of positive feedback from our consumers so we’re looking at ways of expanding that. Traceability opportunities will be greatly enhanced as we work with suppliers and customers to incorporate this in a much broader fashion. The key for us, with blockchain in particular, is that it needs to have interoperability – we’ve got to have a system in place that’s going to allow all the players in the supply chain to participate in the program. This means that regardless of the technology providers themselves we’ll need a system that’s plug and play so whatever platform your company is using it will be able to connect seamlessly. The industry needs to focus on this so we can make sure we have the right incentives in place so that everybody, including the likes of small farmers and producers, can get in the game.”

Robach highlights another area which is also growing and providing GFSI the opportunity to improve the way it manages its systems and help businesses with their transformation. “Analytical technologies are coming to the forefront,” he maintains. “Next generation sequencing allows us to do a better job of detecting hazards and understand how those hazards might move through the supply chain so we can put appropriate risk management strategies in place to address those issues as they creep in, both in terms of microbiology and chemistry. As we improve the tech in real time we’re better able to face these risks and take action against hazards faster to protect the overall food supply.”

Robach believes trends in consumption across the FMCG sector pose unique challenges for sustainability and food safety. “People want to eat less processed foods and the desire for minimally processed foods is growing,” he notes. “However, getting food directly from the farmer’s market still poses risks. The consumer wants natural, organic produce but they need to understand the risks. For example, this whole concept of raw milk… Unpasteurised milk is becoming very popular in America and creating quite an issue with food-borne illness. People are coming down with campylobacteriosis and getting sick with salmonella from shiga toxins produced in ecoli. They’re also getting listeria from raw milk and products derived from it. That’s a concern, because as folks eat more raw foods, the more responsibility consumers have to take for the products they’re bringing into their homes. That’s a process of education and a part of some of the things we’re doing around capacity building to enhance food safety capabilities and driving awareness of the risks associated with certain foods. At the same time, we’re doing what we can to diminish the risk and understanding that with raw products it’s almost impossible to entirely eliminate the hazard.” 

Following GFSI’s Tokyo conference what new initiatives can we expect to see implemented to enhance food safety and improve consumer trust? “Food safety culture and leadership will be enhanced,” assures Robach. “Business leaders and CEOs are putting food safety at the centre of their strategies as a core principle of their business model. We’re driving ownership of food safety, not just through food safety and quality, but everybody in a company owning it through the way they do business. That will show consumers how seriously the industry is taking this. Listening to customers drives what we do… We rely on consumers and their feedback so we’re taking steps to ensure we provide them with the information and the assurances they need to have trust in the food they bring into their homes.”

What advice does Robach have for companies aiming to upgrade their supply chain management and promote food safety in their own organisations? “There is a great opportunity now for companies to join, and become active in, GFSI,” he pledges. “Our Global Markets Programme can help SMEs with less sophisticated supply chains (whether farmers, processers, distributors or retailers) get on a road towards certification. It provides an incremental approach towards building a food safety capacity within an organisation, alongside a program of continuous improvement.” By providing a stepwise route towards accredited certification, GFSI’s Global Markets Programme allows small, developing businesses to join the food safety conversation. The GFSI Tokyo conference heard from two such companies who have built their success via the programme.

Tatania Chirva runs Liniya Smaku, a ready meal factory in Ukraine. The programme allowed her to improve safety, gain consumer trust, and increase sales by over 50%. Meanwhile in Malaysia, Samantha Mah, Marketing Manager of health foods brand Wide Tropism, offers a similar success story. Wide Tropism began as a staple-foods distributor based in a shophouse, where Mah and two other employees packaged goods themselves. Despite their humble surroundings, they had big ambitions: a place on the shelves of AEON department stores. They applied to be a supplier, received an audit, and were rejected. After multiple rejections, Wide Tropism worked with the Global Markets Programme to improve safety through documentation, batch number tracing, and other measures. They moved into a modern factory and hired new staff. Their efforts paid off in 2014, when they went into business with AEON and were also named an ASEAN Best Growth Company of 2016. “A small company doesn’t need to compromise on food safety,” maintains Mah. Speaking at the Tokyo conference, Mike Taylor, former US FDA Deputy Commissioner, applauded the GFSI’s ability to provide a stepping stone for emerging businesses like these to succeed. “This is a time for optimism,” he declared, “a remarkable time for food safety around the world. Private responsibility can’t take the place of public oversight, and no amount of regulation can make food safe without the private sector taking responsibility.” To learn how your business might benefit, check out the organisation’s website to find out more about a GFSI Focus Day hosted by a Local Group near you.

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A core strategic initiative for the GFSI is to deepen its relationships with food safety regulators which in turn will aid the companies it advises in their quest to deliver continued improvement. “We started this back in 2016 with a government to business meeting at the Global Food Safety Conference in Berlin when we had 18 governments and intergovernmental organisations attend,” remembers Robach. “Last year in Huston we had 30 of these bodies attend. It allows us to further develop the working relationship between the private and public sectors which will grow further following this year’s Tokyo conference which saw over

40 governments and intergovernmental organisations in attendance.” Robach is pleased with the level of interest which has seen the GFSI strike agreements with several countries including an MOU in place with the Mexican government and working groups established with administrations in Canada, Holland, France and the UK on ways in which the GFSI can establish guidelines to utilise accredited third-party certification. “We also have a longstanding association with the Chinese government and have a MOU with their certification body CNCA and have been able to recognise its programme as being technically equivalent to the GFSI’s,” he adds. “We have a similar relationship developing in the US where we’re seeking recognition of the GFSI from the FDA where its agricultural marketing service is submitting its produce safety certification programme for our technical equivalence evaluation. Elsewhere, our Southern Latin America local group (Argentina, Chile and Brazil) is blossoming. We have a letter of intent to work with the ministry of agribusiness in Argentina and we’re looking to establish a MOU with the Chilean government - there are great opportunities for companies to build positive collaborations with regulators through GFSI.”

Reaching out and establishing alliances like these is key to the growth of the GFSI which is also working with intergovernmental organisations such as the FAO, Codex, the World Health Organisation and OIE (the world organisation for animal health). “We have great relationships with these international standard setting bodies because much of what we’re doing is harmonising food safety expectations which fits in with the WTO’s push to eliminate non-tariff trade barriers,” confirms Robach, who feels such partnerships are vital. “We’re also working closely with the World Bank and Global Food Safety Partnership with a MOU imminent so we can work collaboratively in terms of providing food safety training on a global scale. We also have a partnership to achieve this goal with UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organisation) in South East Asia.”

Robach speaks from a position of genuine understanding thanks to his role leading Cargill’s global food safety quality and regulatory programmes. “I’ve been with the company for 15 years and very pleased to have been the chair at GFSI for the past two years and proud to have been re-elected for another two-year term.” The geographic breadth of Cargill (1500 plants in 70 countries) makes it a truly global company operating in the agriculture supply chain, food ingredients, animal nutrition and protein & salt - just about every aspect of the food supply chain. “It gives me a great sight line throughout the entire global food supply chain helping me in my role at GFSI,” maintains Robach. “Because we’re not just a traditional manufacturer or processer – we’re in agricultural production, raw agricultural commodity processing etc, which gives us at Cargill the opportunity to use GFSI’s tools, like the Global Markets Programme, back in our supply chain where we work with small farmers and suppliers and can help them on the path to certification and at the same time it helps us ensure the integrity of our supply chain.”

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