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The participation in regional networks is an important factor in explaining the food companies’ innovation capacity which – in turn - is an important driver of competitiveness (Gellynck et al., 2006a; Gellynck et al., 2007). Further, it is argued in cluster theory that intensive networking between related companies and other actors in a given region is a driver of competitive advantage of this region (Enright, 1998; Porter, 1998). In this paper the food cluster is understood as a set of geographically and socially embedded network relations based on a range of complementarities and communalities between regional actors and enhancing the competitiveness of the regional food industry. Each cluster shows distinct patterns of learning and uses different sources of knowledge (Pittaway et al., 2004; Steiner and Hartmann, 2006). As such, clusters exist in different forms, characterised by distinct configurations of network relations. By joining a network and taking part in a collaborative process with partners belonging to the network, the company is able to overcome internal restrictions (Camps, 2004; Daskalakis and Kauffeld-Monz, 2005; Janszen, 2002). Network configurations are diverse in character, dynamic and principally guided by the choices of partners and by the network infrastructure itself (Pittaway et al., 2004). Further, networks are considered to be embedded in the environment (Etzkowitz and Klofsten, 2005). This environment can cover different geographical scales of which the regional scale proves to be a significant one (Bunnell and Coe, 2001). Earlier research demonstrates that the company’s networking behaviour is important to explain its innovation capacity and competitiveness: it is the condition which has to be fulfilled to benefit from other regional external resources for innovation, such as the presence of a strong food chain, a competitive market or leading-edge facilities (Gellynck et al., 2006b; Gellynck et al., 2007). Further, networking relations are established with a diversity of partners. There is evidence that networks are more effective where there is exchange of knowledge between systems, for example between different industrial sectors, regions or stakeholders (Foster et al., 2003; Kaufmann and Todtling, 2001). This is also acknowledged in cluster theory, where reference is made to networks between concentrated groups of companies and a range of other organisations (Porter, 1996; Raines, 2001). Following the important role of networking in innovation processes and the diversity of network relations existing within regional food clusters, our paper focuses on the question which network characteristics have the strongest relationship with the competitiveness of the regional food industry. In particular, this paper formulates an answer to this question based on the perception of the main stakeholders in the network: entrepreneurs, scientists, policy makers and network actors (understood as regional development initiatives and formal networks). This paper is structured as follows. In the following section the conceptual framework is described, leading to the research question. In section three the research design and methodology are described. Afterwards, in section four the analysis and main findings are presented, leading to the conclusions in section five.


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