The initiative is aimed at identifying and addressing issues that determine the competitiveness of the agro-food industry to be able to formulate a set of recommendations to achieve a predictable and stable framework for future development. The competitiveness of Europe's food industry is weak compared to the US and Canada, and at a similar level to Australia's and Brazil's, according to the Commission's report, Competitiveness of the European Food Industry: An economic and legal assessment. It said this is a continuing challenge facing the EU food industry, despite it being the largest exporter and importer of food products and including a fair number of world leading food enterprises. The industry has an annual turnover in excess of €800bn, is made up of more than 280,000 companies, and provides jobs for 4m people. The new group has been welcomed by the industry. Jean Martin, president of the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), said: "This is a major opportunity for the food and drink industry and must be given the highest chance of success. "A holistic and integrated food policy that focuses on the needs and the role of the sector as a whole is essential for the competitiveness of the industry." The CIAA's 2007 report found that the food industry is performing below average in nine out of 12 innovation indicators, and is ranked 15th out of 19 sectors for innovation. The top three innovative member states in food products are Belgium, Sweden and France. The group's aims The team met for the first time last week. It was chaired by European Commission vice president Gunter Verheugen, and included agricultural commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, health commissioner Androulla Vassiliou. Verheugen said: "Together we will identify and discuss the fields which need extra attention to increase the competitiveness of the industry and meet the expectations of citizens." The main topics to be covered are competitiveness, the need for innovation and R&D, support for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), simplifying food legislation while ensuring food safety, achieving sustainable production, trade agreements and overcoming the food price crisis and its effects on the food chain. Novel foods This is not the first programme set up to approach the issue of competitiveness of the food industry. The European Technology Platform (ETP) Food for Life project was established in 2005 to strengthen innovation processes, as well as to improve knowledge transfer and stimulate competitiveness. A recent conference for the Food for Life said cooperation within the industry is essential to allow European food companies, the majority of which are SMEs, to carry out research and develop innovative products by encouraging the pooling of resources and sharing of research findings Additionally, it concluded that the existing novel food assessment procedure means manufacturers experience huge delays in receiving a verdict on their innovative products and so needs improving, said the committee. The industry is awaiting the first draft report on proposed changes to the novel foods regulation, which is due out any day. The changes aim to create a more efficient and practical system for new food techniques and technologies to gain access to the European market more quickly.