EU ministers propose $219m E.coli aid package

Bloc debates $219m compensation package for vegetable farmers hit by deadly outbreak, saying final figure may be higher.

    The European Commission is proposing a $219m aid package for vegetable farmers in the region who have been affected by a deadly outbreak of E.coli.

    "I will propose 150 million euros today," Dacian Ciolos, the European agriculture minister, said after an emergency meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday, but added that the figure was just a starting point for discussion.

    Spain, however, immediately dismissed the compensation offer as insufficient.

    "No, it's not enough for Spain," Rosa Aguillar, the Spanish agriculture minister, said.

    "What we will propose is that there should be a response to all producers ... for 100 per cent of the real market value of the losses," she said.

    Spain has already estimated that it has lost $256m in exports amongst its growers, while Freshful, an EU-wide fresh produce association, said the country could be losing $292m a week.

    Farmers in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France and Portugal have also been affected.

    Ciolos said it was crucial for authorities in Germany, the epicentre of the crisis, to find the source of the outbreak, which has killed 25 people and left more than 2,000 ill.

    "I hope that the authorities will be able to give an answer on the source of the infection as quickly as possible," he said.

    "Without this answer, it will be difficult to regain the trust of consumers, which is essential for the market to regain its strength."

    Scientists and health authorities have been struggling to determine the source of the outbreak, with initial tests on organic bean sprouts, thought to believed to be behind the bacteria, turning up negative.

    But German scientists said the vegetables have not been ruled out, as contaminated produce could have long since been distributed.

    "This is an important lead that we're vigorously pursuing," Ilse Aigner, Germany's federal agriculture minister, said in Berlin on Monday, after 23 samples tested at the farm had come out negative.

    She repeated warnings to consumers to avoid eating bean sprouts, cucumbers, tomatoes and salad.

    Andreas Hensel, the head of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, admitted that "it is possible we shall never be able to identify the source" of the contamination.

    Rancour in the EU

    Any form of  EU compensation is likely to come from a farm crisis fund within the EU budget, European sources said.

    The money will amount to between 25 and 30 per cent of the losses suffered by farmers whose raw vegetables are suspected by German authorities of being the source of the outbreak.

    Under that plan, EU producers would receive about 30 per cent of the total value of unsold produce until June 30 in financial aid paid directly from the EU budget.

    Spain has threatened legal action against German regional authorities for wrongly identifying Spanish cucumbers as the source of the contamination.

    It says that the German authorities must recompense Spanish producers in full for any losses incurred as a result of their incorrect warning.

    The current outbreak has hit at least 14 countries, including the US, though all fatalities have been directly linked to Germany.

    More than 1,600 patients have been diagnosed as being infected in Germany, with a further 630 said to be suffering from haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening condition involving kidney malfunction, the Robert Koch Institute said.

    On Tuesday, Taggesspiege, a German newspaper, reported that the E.coli strain involved in the outbreak, known as EAEC, is only found in humans, rather than animals.

    Dr Lo Wing Lok, an infectious disease specialist in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera that while the infection can spread relatively easily due to the free travel of goods and people around the world, the measures one can take to protect oneself are also quite simple.

    "[The measures are] to cook our vegetables [and] meat thoroughly before eating. E.coli is highly susceptible to heat, the measures are as simple as that," he said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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