Spain has threatened to sue the German city of Hamburg for damages after officials identified Spanish produce as the possible source of a fatal E. coli outbreak that has now killed at least 18 people.
Hamburg public health officials said Tuesday that tests on suspect Spanish cucumbers revealed they did not carry the bacteria strain that has so far killed 17 people in Germany and one in Sweden.
Spain's fruit and vegetable exporters estimate they have lost more than 200 million euros ($290 million) in unsold produce as a result of the crisis.
"The image of Spain is being ruined; Spanish producers are being damaged, and the Spanish government is not prepared to accept this situation," said Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar.
The outbreak, one of the largest of its kind, has led many countries block the import of some Spanish produce. Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden and Belgium have turned away Spanish cucumbers, and the United States said it has also tested cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce imported from Spain.
Russia slams EU standards
Russia, too, on Thursday banned the import of fresh vegetables from the entire European Union. Announcing the ban, Russia's top consumer protection official took the opportunity to slam EU food safety standards.
"This shows that Europe's lauded health legislation - one which Russia is being urged to adopt - does not work," said Gennady Onischenko.
"The fresh vegetable import ban affecting all EU countries went into effect this morning," Onischenko said in a statement on Thursday, adding that vegetables already shipped would be "seized across Russia."
"I call on people to forego imported vegetables in favor of domestic products," the consumer protection agency chief said.
Responding to the move, the European Commission demanded that Moscow explain its "disproportionate decision" to ban all vegetables.
Still in the dark
On the sidelines of an EU farm ministers meeting in Hungary Tuesday, German State Secretary for Agriculture, Robert Kloos, admitted that Spanish cucumbers were "not the cause" of the infections.
The highly virulent strain of the Enterohemorrhagic E. coli bacteria (EHEC) has been confirmed in 73 cases, spanning eight countries.
In Germany, more than 600 people have been infected. Sweden has confirmed 40 cases, Denmark 14, the Netherlands seven, France six, Britain three and Poland, Norway and Switzerland one each.
Officials from the state and federal governments of Germany are working feverishly to limit the political fallout from the deepening E. coli crisis, but said they were "back to square one" after realizing that Spanish vegetables were not the cause.
German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said there were indications that the source was still active.
"The result is that we are unfortunately going to be dealing with a rise in the number of cases," Bahr said in a news conference after a crisis meeting.
Author: Gregg Benzow, Sarah Harman (AFP, Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Nicole Goebel