As the deadline for bids from countries wishing to host the European Food Authority (EFA) draws ever nearer, so the race between the major contenders gathers pace. As reported previously on just-food.com, the bidders include the Finnish capital Helsinki, and less realistically the Italian proposal of Parma. just-food.com recently came back from Barcelona, where it discovered the importance of the EFA to, and the suitability of, the Catalonian capital as a third bidder to host a permanent home of the EU institution.

At first glance, it seems amazing that even an EU body with as much clout as the proposed food authority could ever function efficiently in the frenetic whirlwind that is the city of Barcelona, but it is undeniable that within its hot-blooded energy and enthusiasm oozes a calm professionalism that is confident of its ability to Do, and its attraction to others who Can.

In October of last year, a Healey & Baker survey voted Barcelona the best European city in terms of quality of life for employees, and it attracts thousands of professionals to the metropolitan area. City officials are also currently engaged in the third economic and social strategic plan, which aims to develop and modernise over 7 million m² of land by the bay for use as flats and offices.

"There has been a very impressive change," explained Barcelona's Mayor, Joan Clos. Twenty years ago, young scientific achievers would leave Barcelona to capitalise on advantages and resources elsewhere. Now, however, "they are coming back."

Barcelona is intensely proud of its cultural connections. This century alone, its region has fostered Picasso and Dali and its architecture was subject to the diverse influence of Sir Norman Foster and the eclectic genius Gaudi. However, the city's longstanding cultural connections with food are equally important, especially in its current role as home to 28% of Spain's food industry. The presence of the huge food market in the city centre and public museums such as the museum of chocolate stress the importance of historical associations with food and Catalonians are intensely proud of their healthy Mediterranean diet. The city also hosts the bi-annual Alimentaria food trade show every four years.

The presence of the Mercabarna agribusiness centre on the outskirts of the city, built in 1967, also focuses much attention on the area in terms of the economic importance of food to the local population. Working to accommodate the supply and demand pressures of food production, the city could prove an ideal environment for a European body concerned with food regulation, its implementation, its feasibility and its effects.

Lounging around northeast coast beaches, Barcelona has long been popular with tourists. Its climate is at worst pleasant and its popularity has been stepped up since it organised the Olympics in 1992, encouraging a city reappraisal that led to excellent infrastructure. Opened to coincide with the games was the Collserola Tower, which, together with Castellbisbal's Teleport Exchange and the Satellite Communications Complex in La Granada del Penedés, puts Barcelona firmly on the telecommunications map.

Should Barcelona's bid be successful, EFA officials would appreciate its compact city centre and its leading provision of 600,000 subterranean parking spaces. Thirty-two per cent of daily trips are completed on foot, thereby severely reducing road congestion, and another third are taken on the highly valued public transport system. A comprehensive metro line services the city itself, and trains head into Barcelona with the frequency of any major EU city. Similarly, it is connected by a network of motorways and regularly serviced by almost every European airport.

Just getting the delegates and officials there is not enough, of course, and Barcelona is up against some tough competition. Some are convinced that the most serious contender is Helsinki's bid, butthe race could easily become gorier and more protracted than the war for the Whitehouse, especially as technological and intellectual resources are likely to prove as crucial to the outcome of the bidding race as the issue of infrastructure.

Barcelona has a long tradition of R&D in food issues, which has been bolstered over the last decade with funding for research developments and centres. The Food Technology Reference Centre (CeRTA) was created in 1994 to propose and then conduct research projects on all aspects of food and nutrition. A sixth of all projects carried out in Catalonia are already expressly for EU authorities, and a European focus is important to the main research projects of both the Food Studies Group (GEA) and the Community Nutrition Research Group.

In 1997, the Barcelona Science Park was built as a private foundation initiative between the University of Barcelona, the Bosch I Gimpera Foundation and the Caixa de Cataluña bank, to bring together research teams and over a thousand scientists with specialities in the fields of biomedicine, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

Home to eight universities and thousands of students (including over 3,000 foreign students), Barcelona remains a vibrant city intellectually, into which graduates are attracted by employment prospects and further study (in 1998 there were 56,300 postgraduates in Barcelona). There has been some criticism recently that the area is too protectionist, that in hosting university lectures in Catalonian (a hybrid language of Spanish and French native to the area) it is too preoccupied with its own newly liberated heritage to be a suitable venue for a European organisation. In response, however, locals explain that having been oppressed for so long during Franco's dictatorship (1939-1975), they are more anxious than ever to make their presence known and to work within a European context.

Supremely confident of their suitability to host the EFA, the city has already commissioned an architect to design the building, which will be open by spring 2003. Situated a stone's throw from the central train station and a new development of flats and offices, grafted (aesthetically) onto the Hospital del Mar, which has carried out nutritional research for years, and designed to open out onto views of beach and the sea, the building will be well placed for its purpose.

In this custom-built structure, in this cultural and historical context and in this welcoming city, the EFA could well find an apposite home. Barcelona certainly believes that its people, its technical and scientific expertise and its infrastructure can offer the EFA a dynamic base. Only time will tell whether it will get the opportunity.

By Clare Harman, just-food.com

For more information on Helsinki's bid, click here