EU-Russia ‘vegetable summit’ leaves bad aftertaste

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A compromise agreement reached between European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to allow imports of European vegetables to Russia following the E.coli crisis appears only to have further complicated the problem rather than helped solve it. 

The European Commission lamented today (15 June) Russia's failure to lift a ban on EU vegetable imports imposed in response to the recent outbreak of highly infectious E-coli bacteria, which has killed dozens of people and affected thousands more.

Despite the German authorities having finally pinned down the outbreak to an organic farm in Northern Germany which has since been shut down, Russia is still keeping its market closed to EU vegetables.

"The Commission today expressed its profound dissatisfaction that the lifting of the import ban which was agreed between Presidents Medvedev and Barroso at the summit has not yet been implemented," spokesperson Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen stated.

She insisted that the source of the E.coli contamination had been clearly identified and dangerous items eliminated from the market, and that as a result, there was no justification for maintaining the ban.

However, it appears that a compromise agreement struck between Barroso and Medvedev at a bilateral summit last Friday has complicated matters.

Ahrenkilde Hansen confirmed that the two sides had agreed to resume trade in vegetables, accompanied by documents certifying their safety.

Are certificates needed or not?

Barroso said at the summit that the EU would send a proposal for such certificates to Russia in the next few days, adding that the certification system for the vegetables would be put in place "without delay".

Asked if certificates were still necessary now that the source of the contamination had been identified, Hansen did not provide a clear answer, repeating that there was no more justification for banning vegetable imports.

Frédéric Vincent, spokesperson for Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli, provided a largely contradictory explanation. He insisted that the export certificates could state that imports had not originated from the region of Northern Germany where the outbreak began.

Asked by EURACTIV whether issuing certificates for specific regions would constitute a breach of EU single market rules, Vincent avoided a clear answer, stating that the Union had negotiated with Russia "as a bloc".

Over the weekend, Germany finally pinned down the deadly E.coli outbreak to contaminated bean sprouts and shoots grown at an organic farm in the north of the country. Officials said they were not planning to take legal action against the organic grower, saying the contamination was down to "bad luck".

About a quarter of the near 3,000 people affected by E.coli developed a severe complication caused by bacteria called 'haemolytic uraemic syndrome', or HUS, which affects the blood, kidneys and nervous system.

The death toll from the E-coli outbreak had risen to at least 38 by today (15 June). 

The European Commission has approved a compensation package worth €210 million for the fruit and vegetable farmers affected. But several countries have been hit and producers claimed that this offer was too low.

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