For the first time in 75 years, the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) isn’t filling the hotel and conference rooms of a lucky city with close to  5,000 of its members attending its annual meetings.

Because the coronavirus pandemic continues, IAFP’s 2020 Annual Meeting is underway virtually, beginning today and running through Wednesday.    

Only twice since it began in 1911 has IAFP skipped its annual meetings, both times during the dark days of World War II.  Since then, IAFP’s annual gatherings came to be recognized as the leading food safety conference worldwide.

 Were it not for the pandemic, IAFP’s 2020 Annual Meeting would have occurred during July in Cleveland.   

 For the Des Moines, IA-based IAFP staff of about a dozen professionals and its international Board of Directors, the pandemic upended their year. The IAFP Annual Meeting is, well, complicated with numerous moving parts.   

Shutting down Cleveland and still fulfilling the needs of food safety professionals around the world with a virtual multi-day event sure wasn’t accomplished overnight,

IAFP’s Executive Director since 1997 is David Tharp. He joined the staff 28 years ago as Director of Finance and Administration and was also the interim executive in 1995.    He was not from the food safety world, but a CPA who thought he would take a summer putting IAFP’s financial house in order before going back to doing taxes.

He stayed and produced 27 annual meetings in North American cities until this year’s move to the World Wide Web.   IAFP’s membership growth is about five times what it was when he took over, to more than 4,500 today.

Today it is also a true international organization with a European conference added in 2005 along with events in  China, Dubai, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific region with active members spanning the globe.

Tharp also virtually sat down with Food Safety News  (FSN) to tell us how the decisions were made to make IAFP’s first virtual annual meeting reality with all the action that begins today.

(FSN) — Would you trace the steps that brought you to the decision where you committed to producing this first-ever annual virtual IAFP annual meeting? 

(Tharp) — Yes, it all started back in February when the Program Committee and IAFP Executive Board met in Cleveland. There were news stories about a virus that was spreading quickly around the world. 

By mid-March, it was clear the IAFP Board would not meet in person for their April Board meeting, and all signs were pointing to a long period of travel bans and social distancing. 

We began discussions immediately about alternative plans for IAFP 2020 and set May 1 as the date to decide. After weighing the choices, we decided to postpone the Annual Meeting to October, hoping that the infection rates of COVID-19 would be declining, and we could hold a modified Annual Meeting. 

As time progressed, infection rates did not decline, travel became more restrictive, and it became evident that it would not be possible to hold an in-person Annual Meeting in October. 

In August, we announced our plan to hold IAFP 2020, A Virtual Annual Meeting. 

 (FSN) How much different was planning for a virtual event than just getting people together in person? 

(Tharp) — It sounds so much easier to conduct a virtual meeting, but it turns out to be a much more complicated project. Planning for a virtual meeting is altogether different than preparing for the standard, in-person Annual Meeting. 

In our case, we had to start at the very beginning to establish a virtual platform to use. Because we already had more than 100 sessions accepted, we had to contact each session organizer to confirm whether they would convert their session to a virtual session or if they wanted to withdraw the session. There were close to 1,000 poster presentations where the same confirmation needed to take place. Keeping track of who was in, who was out, who would pre-record, and who would present live became quite the task. 

Then there was the meeting element of exhibitors and sponsors. Again, each had to be contacted to determine their willingness to support the virtual meeting. Lastly, a good number of people had already registered and paid for the in-person Annual Meeting, so they all had to be contacted to determine if they wanted to convert their registration to the virtual meeting. 

Once the conversions were made, the details of how presentations were going to take place had to be determined along with communicating those instructions. The same had to be done for exhibitors. A schedule for each day was devised and our typical meeting content was fit into the three-day schedule. Committee and Professional Development Group (PDG) meetings had to be scheduled in advance of the Virtual Annual Meeting. Award presentations and General Session content were pre-recorded to avoid Internet and power outage issues. And all posters and technical presentations, along with symposia, had to be recorded and uploaded. Communication, communication, communication – that was key in working to keep everyone updated and informed. 

(FSN) — From the looks of the program, this is another large action-packed IAFP production. Did you decide that going virtual was not going to mean holding anything back or did it just work out that way? 

(Tharp) —The decision was made that we would accommodate any presentation that was accepted for the in-person Annual Meeting within the virtual Annual Meeting. As it turned out, we have about 85 percent of our normal Annual Meeting content being delivered virtually this year. People have been so very accommodating in working together to bring this year’s Annual Meeting to life. Exhibitors and sponsors stepped up, our Members and presenters stepped up, the Board was very supportive and our IAFP staff members all worked together to make this a successful Annual Meeting.

Nothing can replace the “in-person” experience of seeing and conversing with friends and colleagues, but when it is not possible to meet in person, we have to settle for this virtual option. We hope to be able to welcome everyone to Phoenix next July for IAFP 2021…until then, take care and be safe! 

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