Small and medium-sized companies are the true innovators of the food and drink industry. It's time they had a chance to share their views

As the voice of the UK's most important manufacturing sector, the Food and Drink Federation is well regarded by government, policymakers and regulators. We are their first port of call when legislation is being developed. And our reputation means we have the right access to the right people within Whitehall, Holyrood and Brussels - ensuring they hear, first hand, about the main concerns of the industry.

But if the FDF is to be truly representative of the industry, we must do more to ensure the voice of small and medium-sized manufacturers is also heard. That's why the FDF launched the SME Forum last week to forge better links with smaller companies and inform more companies of the benefits of joining their ranks.

SMEs are a vital part of our food and drink sector, accounting for two thirds of the 6,000-plus manufacturing businesses in the UK. Their entrepreneurial flair often puts them at the forefront of new trends - be it locally sourced products, the growing interest in organic food and drink or the demand for Fairtrade products.

At the same time, regulators and policymakers are becoming more sensitive to the needs of SMEs when drafting new regulation, as they are well aware that one of the unintended consequences of poorly thought-out legislation it that it has a disproportionate impact on SMEs.

Given all this, it makes absolute sense for the FDF to try and strengthen its authority by doing more to represent the views of SMEs and give them a stronger say in our organisation. We must also provide the support and services that will enable them to compete in what remains an extremely challenging market.

The FDF already represents a significant number of SMEs, who recognise membership offers them reliable, up-to-date information. They value our expertise and knowledge as well as our lobbying efforts on key issues.

The next challenge is trying to build on that solid base. We recently asked ADAS to conduct research among smaller food producers in the north west and south west to identify the burning issues for SMEs and the ways in which we could help.

Two things came to light. Firstly, SMEs are rightly concerned about staying on top of legislative developments and complying with the rules and regulations that impact their businesses - particularly with regard to food safety. Secondly, they are also focused on the issues that impair their ability to remain competitive. The Forum can help by giving them access to information, which is tailored to suit their needs and delivered via the internet, email updates or newsletters. This will be backed up by a continuous programme of nationwide networking events, briefings and workshops to ensure our members are better informed about the key issues affecting their companies. We have also set up an SME hotline and email helpline for our members, allowing them to put questions to us.

But this is not a one-dimensional approach. We also want to harness the energy of the SMEs in our membership, using an SME advisory group to find out their views on key issues and involve them in our decision-making processes. We are committed to giving SMEs a higher profile within the FDF and hope that more companies will add their voice to ours.n

Paul Freeston is chief executive of Apetito, deputy president of the Food and Drink Federation and head of the SME Forum