E.coli outbreak: EU representatives trade accusations

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A European Union proposal to offer 150 million euros in compensation to farmers affected by an E.coli outbreak is insufficient and producers should be fully compensated, Spain’s farm minister said on Tuesday in Luxembourg.

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 22 people.

The outbreak of enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) disease in Germany and other Member States, was debated with the Commission on Tuesday.

EU Health Commissioner John Dalli confirmed after Monday’s meeting that the European rapid alert system for food scares — controversially triggered by Germany last week in relation to Spanish cucumbers — will be reviewed following the crisis.

Dalli said that the E.coli, which has killed 22 Europeans, was affecting 11 member states with 1,600 recorded cases, 700 of which were recording serious health complications.

He confirmed that the German health minister had relayed partial results from the beansprout farm which tested negative for the E.coli. Final confirmation that the northern German organic farm was not the origin of the bacterium is still anticipated.

The commissioner said that the effectiveness of the rapid alert system had been discussed by ministers. The Spanish health minister called for the system to be changed following Germany’s use of it last week in relation to Spanish cucumber farms.

The alert contributed to a nose-dive in vegetable sales from Spain and across Europe.

Rapid re-appraisal

Dalli said: “We are always in the process of improving our systems and I do not think that reform of the rapid alert system is needed, but rather an adjustment in order to ensure that the same pitfalls can be avoided in the future.”

He added: “We have to go by scientific proof. We need certainty before we make statements, because news travels fast and becomes public knowledge immediately. It can create a lot of fear and harm operators within the system.”

The Maltese commissioner refused to censure the German authorities for issuing the alert, however, saying: “It is easy to ask with hindsight why that decision was taken, but the pressure on an individual at a specific moment in time is different from us sitting back and commenting on the situation after the event.”

Quest goes on

Seven EU experts – drawn from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Food Standards Agency – arrived in Berlin on Sunday (5 June) to assist German authorities in finding the source of the bacterium.

Today an extraordinary meeting of agriculture ministers will convene in Luxembourg to consider how farmers hit by the crisis can be compensated.

The Commission is seeking a legal mechanism that will enable it to compensate farmers beyond the small-scope and complicated mechanisms of existing state aid and CAP rules.

A Commission spokesman said: “We have seen a drop in consumption of fruit and vegetables and this crisis has taken on a Europe-wide impact, so we need an EU-wide solution.”

Meanwhile, EU officials said that they hoped to keep the E.coli issue off the agenda of the EU-Russia summit agenda later this week, despite Russia’s ban of vegetable imports from the EU.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi last week that the ban may go against “the spirit of the WTO […] but cucumbers that people die after eating really stink”.

The outbreak was identified on 22 May and has so far hit mainly northern Germany, although cases have also been diagnosed in Sweden, Denmark, the UK, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Austria.

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