The EU has upped its offer of compensation to farmers whose incomes have collapsed following the E. coli outbreak. Meanwhile, the German health minister has announced there is hope that the outbreak is in decline.
Farmers are to receive higher compensation
The European Commission raised its offer of compensation on Wednesday for European vegetable farmers affected by the E. coli outbreak, centered in Germany.
The offer was boosted to 210 million euros, ($306.2 million) after Spain and France criticized a previous offer of 150 million euros ($218.7 million).
"I have decided to raise the level of compensation from 30 percent to 50 percent of the reference prices for the products affected for all producers," European Union agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos said.
The figure falls short of the 100 percent revenue compensation which was demanded by Spanish cucumber farmers after German authorities initially cited Spanish produce as the sources of the disease. This accusation has since been found to be false.
Ciolos stated that two new vegetables - zucchinis, also known as courgettes, and peppers have been added to the list of suspects which include cucumbers, bean sprouts, tomatoes and lettuce.
One Spanish company is seeking to take the issue to court in Hamburg
Germany has been criticized both for its response to the outbreak and most notably for its failure thus far to pin down the source of the bacteria.
But German Health Minister, Daniel Bahr, issued an assurance on Wednesday that the outbreak appeared to be under control.
Speaking on German public television Wednesday, Bahr said there were signs that the E. coli outbreak in Germany may be on the decline and that the spread of the deadly bacterial infection was slowing.
"There will be new cases and unfortunately we have to expect more deaths, but the number of new infections is dropping significantly," Bahr said on the ARD network. "I can't sound the all-clear, but after analyzing the latest data we have reasonable cause for hope."
Bahr was speaking ahead of a Wednesday meeting with European Union Health Commissioner John Dalli in Berlin.
Some 2,400 people have contracted E. coli across 12 countries, though almost all the cases can be linked back to northern Germany.
A total of 25 people have died from a severe complication caused by a virulent new strain of the bacteria, which affects the blood, kidneys and nervous system.
Bahr is cautiously optimistic
Bahr defended Germany's federal system of governance that demands cooperation between regional and national governments when dealing with such issues.
"I have no occasion to doubt the cooperation between the German states and the national government," said Bahr. The liberal party (FDP) politician also dismissed calls coming from some corners for the formation of an "epidemic police" in charge of handling such outbreaks - saying it was a "typically German discussion" advocating the formation of yet another authority.
European Union agriculture ministers, at a meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday, agreed on a substantial fund to compensate fruit and vegetable producers for losses caused by the outbreak.
However, Spain, whose cucumbers were wrongly labeled as the E. coli source last week, may be seeking direct compensation from Germany. Tests had identified a different E. coli strain on some cucumbers, but this turned out to be a coincidence unrelated to the outbreak.
Sabine Pellens, a lawyer in Hamburg, the epicenter of the outbreak, told the dpa news agency on Wednesday that she was representing a Spanish company, Frunet, which was seeking to sue for damages this week.
So far, Pellens said, the court in Hamburg had refused to hear the case. Pellens and Frunet want to argue that the health authorities in Hamburg failed to carry out due diligence and observe testing standards before issuing the warning against Spanish produce.
EU Health Commissioner Dalli, in an interview with German daily Die Welt, said the bloc needed above all to learn lessons from Germany's handling of the outbreak.
"We must draw on experience in all of Europe and even beyond. I emphasize strongly how important it is to cooperate closely and share specialist knowledge to bring the E. coli outbreak to an end quickly," he said.
To that end, European specialists are in Germany assisting local scientists with continued tests, currently concentrating on organic bean sprouts believed to be a possible source. Those tests, so far, have come up negative.
Author: Charlotte Chelsom-Pill, Mark Hallam (dpa, AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Nicole Goebel