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Germany and Spain talk cucumbers amid E. coli outbreak

German and Spanish officials are to meet Wednesday to discuss the E. coli outbreak and a false alarm on cucumbers. This comes after the EU proposed a substantial compensation fund for farmers hit by the outbreak.

Spanien Pamplona EHEC Deutsche Anschuldigungen

German and Spanish officials were set to hold talks Wednesday about the outbreak of E. coli in northern Germany and the Berlin government's ultimately erroneous warning on Spanish cucumbers.

Since Germany mistakenly identified Spain as the source of the outbreak last week, Madrid has repeatedly called for compensation for its farmers. Initial investigations uncovered a different strain of E. coli bacteria on some Spanish cucumbers and a public health warning was subsequently issued, but scientists later discovered that the findings were unrelated to the current outbreak.

The European agriculture commissioner said Tuesday after a meeting in Luxembourg that farmers facing losses in sales of their produce due to the outbreak would be compensated, but just how much money will be available is not yet clear. Dacian Ciolos initially said the compensation package would be worth 150 million euros ($219 million) ahead of the talks.

This figure, which would have allowed vegetable farmers to recover an estimated 30 percent of their losses, was rejected during that meeting by Spain and France.

"No, it's not enough for Spain," said the country's agriculture minister, Rosa Aguilar, when asked about the European Commission's initial compensation offer. "What we will propose is that there should be a response to all producers ... for 100 percent of the real market value of the losses."

Following the talks, Ciolos said more money would be available.

"I have pledged to review this number, and come back with an improved proposal, an improvement that will be substantial, balanced and justified," he said.

Produce scare

Bean sprouts in a blue bowl

German bean sprouts are the latest suspect

European fruit and vegetable producers have seen their sales hit hard by the outbreak, and by false alarms raised as to the possible origin of the deadly bacteria.

Spain's fruit and vegetable exporters association, FEPEX, estimated on Monday that the industry was losing 225 million euros ($330 million) per week as a result of the warning, with producers saying prices were down 35 percent since May 27.

Spain has also called for a revision of the European food safety alert system to discourage overhasty warnings.

"In future we need to see how the timing of the alerts can be closer to the actual scientific basis and proof," said European Health Commissioner John Dalli. "Something that goes through the rapid alert system is news very quickly."

Spanish cucumbers were the second possible cause of the outbreak brought to the public's attention in Germany, after a more general warning covering tomatoes, raw vegetables and green salad ingredients from Lower Saxony.

The most recent produce named as a possible source of the bacteria are organic bean sprouts produced at a market garden south of Hamburg. German officials said Sunday that there were strong links to all the major concentrations of E. coli cases, and that one employee at the farm had contracted the illness. However, the first 23 of 40 laboratory tests came up negative.

Ilse Aigner

Aigner has defended the German government response

Under criticism

The German government has come under criticism from the public and the opposition Green party for responding poorly to the spread of the bacteria, which has contributed to the deaths of at least 24 people in Europe and roughly 2,000 suspected cases originating in northern Germany.

"Our crisis management system is working, the authorities are concentrating all their resources on battling this epidemic," Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said in the government's defense in an interview published in Tuesday's edition of the Saarbrücker Zeitung newspaper.

EU Health Commissioner Dalli also announced in the run-up to Tuesday's meeting that European food safety experts had been sent to Germany to help local authorities pinpoint the source of the outbreak.

"This is an important crisis … something that although contained geographically is an issue that needs to be controlled, and we need also to ensure that it does not occur again," said Dalli.

Author: Mark Hallam, Chuck Penfold (AFP, dapd, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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