EU to increase aid offer to farmers hit by E.coli

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The European Commission may increase its proposed €150 million of aid to farmers hit by plummeting demand after the deadly E.coli outbreak.

The EU executive could present a revised proposal as early as today following objections to the level and total amount of support by EU farm ministers, EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolo? said at a news conference in Luxembourg yesterday.

The Commission may look again at "the rate of indemnisation and the total available envelope," he said.

"I committed myself to review this [150 million] figure, the level of compensation, and to come back with […] a substantially increased proposal as soon as tomorrow," Ciolo? told a news conference after the meeting.

Under the plan, producers of fruit and vegetables such as cucumbers, lettuces, tomatoes and courgettes will receive a share of the total value of products they withdraw from the market and destroy, following a collapse in consumer demand.

The Commission initially proposed to reimburse up to 30% of total losses, but nine EU states including Germany, France and Spain demanded compensation for 100%.

Ciolo? would not say by how much the Commission would improve its offer, but he ruled out compensating farmers for 100% of their losses.

"I'm ready to increase this 30% level, but I don't think the budget available will allow us to go to 100% for all products and all producers," he said.

A revised proposal is expected to be drafted by tomorrow, and will be voted on by a committee of member state experts on Tuesday, EU officials said.

Once approved, EU financial aid could be released to farmers by the end of June.

Heavy losses

Spanish fruit and vegetable producers have been hardest hit by the collapse in sales during the crisis, after German officials initially blamed cucumbers from Spain for causing the outbreak that has so far killed 23 people.

Spain has estimated its own losses at 200 million euros per week since Germany blamed its produce for the outbreak. The source of the infection has not yet been identified.

EU fresh produce association Freshfel Europe said the latest estimates put the weekly economic damage at about 80 million euros in the Netherlands, 20 million Germany, four million in Belgium and three million in Portugal, along with 200 million in Spain.

Germany's rate of E.coli cases slows

Meanwhile, the rate of infection in Germany's E.coli crisis is slowing, German officials said, adding there was no conclusive proof of suspicions that organic bean sprouts were to blame for an outbreak that has killed 23.

Farmers across Europe have seen sales plummet after salad vegetables were first blamed, and the European Union was meeting to approve a package of aid for growers, which looked set to significantly top 150 million euros.

In the north German port of Hamburg, centre of the outbreak that has made more than 2,400 people in 12 countries ill, officials said one lead – a packet of bean sprouts in the fridge of one affected man – did not test positive for the E.coli bacteria.

Hamburg's state health minister Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks said clinics dealing with the outbreak "tell us the situation is gradually improving".

"We are seeing the first patients discharged, others are getting much better, so the first glimmers of hope are on the horizon," she said

But she also told a news conference that all test results for bean sprouts, which Germans like to eat on their salads, had so far have been inconclusive.

"We have strengthened our testing of bean sprouts and they so far have been inconclusive," she said. "That applies also for the sprout package which was found in the refrigerator."

German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said there was reason to be cautiously optimistic but it was too early to give the all-clear. "There are some arguments suggesting the worst is behind us," Bahr told reporters.

EURACTIV with Reuters

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Background

E.coli bacteria are common and normally harmless, but a few strains can cause severe illness. In many of the reported cases, the Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia coli (STEC) gastrointestinal infection has led to Hemolytic-uremic Syndrome (HUS), which usually occurs when digestive system infection produces toxic substances which destroy red blood cells and can cause kidney failure.

Severe cases can cause failure of the nervous system.

The Sweden-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has called the latest outbreak "one of the largest described of HUS worldwide and the largest ever reported in Germany". The sickness is not directly contagious but it can be transferred between people if an infected person prepares food for others.

It is the second food scare for German consumers this year. In January highly toxic dioxin was found in egg, poultry and pork products.

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