"Helsinki is the best place for the job." This is how Pertti Salolainen, Finnish ambassador to the UK, summed up his stance on the race currently under way to host the new European Food Authority. Finland is fast emerging as the main contender, although Spain and Italy have proposed Barcelona and Parma respectively.

The exact responsibilities of the new agency have yet to be finalised. It will certainly focus on regaining and maintaining consumer confidence in food safety, which is low in a number of Member States following outbreaks such as BSE and dioxin in recent years. Another priority will be risk assessment, and the Authority will make recommendations to national authorities to help them avert food safety crises - and deal with them if they occur. Responsibility for enforcement and legislation will remain with the Commission.

Strong food safety record

Veli-Pekka Talvela, director general of international affairs at the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, suggested to just-food.com that Finland's relatively unblemished food safety record would stand it in good stead as the bidding proceeds. Arguably, the fact that the country is small and has few vested industry interests might increase its neutrality, which could also be seen as a point in its favour. More importantly, a sophisticated technical infrastructure is already in place in the Viikki Science Park on the outskirts of Helsinki, which would provide the location for the EFA buildings.

Finland is unusually well endowed with food safety experts, not least because all veterinary science students do a compulsory year focusing on food safety. Indeed, one third of all veterinary science graduates go on to work on food safety, said Katri Jalava, assistant professor in the Department of Food and Environmental Hygiene in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Helsinki.

Links with bioscience - good or bad?

Much of the research at the Viikki Science Park focuses on bioscience, which is set to remain one of the hot topics in the international food sector in coming years. While critics have suggested that a strong emphasis on biotechnology might hamper Finland's bid with negative connotations, just-food.com disagrees. Firstly, expert knowledge of genetically modified organisms does not in itself suggest approval of GM food, and secondly, easy access to state-of-the-art bioscience laboratories and research facilities could be of great use to the scientists who will work at the Authority.

Issues of accessibility

One of the arguments used by Helsinki's rivals for the EFA is that it is not centrally located in the EU. This is a somewhat spurious claim, since there are international air links to the Finnish capital from all the cities hosting EU agencies, and transport in and around Helsinki is also efficient. As the EU expands, those in positions of authority have to adapt to the idea that official activities will not all be centred in Brussels and Luxembourg. Moreover, in an age of advanced telecommunications, much of the Authority's business will inevitably be conducted off-site. And in any case, should a food crisis occur, scientists and decision-makers from the affected Member States would not initially waste time meeting in person, be it in Finland or Belgium, but would pick up the phone or use video-conferencing facilities. This lessens the importance of geography.

An EU Member State since 1995, Finland is one of just two Member States which do not host an EU institution or agency. Sweden, the other, supports Finland's bid for the EFA. Not that Finland has been applying left, right and centre to host institutions: as the ambassador pointed out, "We haven't been applying for other institutions as we felt they would be better placed elsewhere, but we are the best country to host this one."

Political obligation

If all else is equal - and Barcelona or Parma will be hard pushed to make a more convincing case than Helsinki - just-food.com believes that the new European Food Authority should be sited in Finland. In the end it is likely to be a largely political decision, and the EU has a political obligation to treat its constituent members fairly and as such should locate the EFA in Finland.