Just weeks before EU Heads of Government meet in Laeken, Italy has intensified its campaign to have Parma designated as the seat of the proposed European food security agency, over rivals Helsinki, Barcelona, Lillie and Luxembourg.

Foreign minister Renato Ruggiero (former WTO head) has been assigned to lobby EU partners and has also named Parma as the venue for a 29 November forum on food quality as a signal of its readiness.

PM Silvio Berlusconi is also believed to be canvassing Spain as an ally behind Parma's candidacy, despite Spain's Barcelona candidature, in a bid to forestall the Nordic challenge in Helsinki.

Helsinki is considered Parma's strongest rival because Finland lacks any EU seat. Barcelona and Lille are judged to be "dark horses". Luxembourg meanwhile was once noted as an ideal site by EU commission president Romano Prodi because of its proximity to Brussels and the EU space available in the city.

Italians stress that Parma lies in the heart of the country's "Food Valley" and is home to food multinationals such as Parmalat and Barilla. It is also strong in agricultural research, noted for its ham and cheese, easily accessible and relatively close to the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation, the principle UN food standards agency. Parma has offered a 16th century palace as the seat.

By Hilmi Toros, just-food.com correspondent