EU to offer E. coli 'compensation' to farmers

6th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

The European Commission will on Tuesday ask states to back special compensation for farmers whose sales of fresh produce have evaporated amid a lethal E. coli bacterial outbreak centred on Germany.

At an emergency meeting of agriculture ministers in Luxembourg, "the commission will propose concrete measures of compensation," commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde told a news briefing on Monday.

"The commission is looking at various legal options," she said, which "will cover not only producers who are members of producer organisations but also those who are not."

Originally but falsely blamed on Spanish cucumbers, the enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) outbreak has killed at least 22 people and infected some 2,000, mostly in Germany, and unleashed cross-border anger at the impact on vegetable producers.

Growers have seen their produce shunned, with Russia and Qatar among states that have applied temporary bans on fresh-produce exports.

Efforts to find a solution with Moscow are being stepped up ahead of a planned European Union summit on Thursday and Friday in Russia, Ahrenkilde added.

Spanish Health Minister Leire Pajin warned earlier Monday that Madrid will demand answers on why German and European authorities allowed blame to be pointed at Spain before full testing was completed, as well as on how to deliver aid to distraught growers.

"We are going to express our criticisms over the way this crisis has been managed, given the serious consequences it has had for our national interest," Pajin said, citing "serious and irreparable damage" despite Spanish produce being "perfectly safe."

"Action is needed to prevent a repetition of this type of situation," she added before a scheduled meeting of EU health ministers in Luxembourg.

"For this reason I am going to ask the Commission to improve and strengthen its food alert mechanisms."

Producers from other countries including Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal are also demanding aid.

While the amounts and nature of compensation have still to be agreed, pending legal analysis, Ahrenkilde said growers who are members of producer organisations "are entitled to EU funding for withdrawing products from markets," limited to a maximum of 10 percent of annual output.

Additionally, states can authorise direct national aid to affected sectors, of up to "7,500 euros per farm over three years," with further assistance not ruled out provided EU competition authorities are satisfied the levels would not distort a level playing-field.

An EU diplomat also told AFP that Brussels is looking at ways of dipping into extra funds held in the EU's budget -- already hotly contested by states making deep cuts at home -- to help offset tens of millions of euros of losses for farmers.

The commission meanwhile said it "takes note" of a German announcement that the source of the outbreak, blamed for 22 deaths and some 2,000 infections, may have been located on a small farm producing beansprouts.

The state agriculture ministry of Lower Saxony in northern Germany said it would issue results of the latest tests carried out at the farm later Monday.

However, the EU executive added that no bloc-wide alert had been launched "since no lot seems to have been exported either to the (wider) EU or a third country," pending confirmation from Berlin.

© 2011 AFP

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