EU to offer E. coli 'compensation' to farmers
The European Commission will on Tuesday urge 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 sickened 2,000, mostly in Germany, and unleashed cross-border anger at the impact on vegetable producers.
Growers have seen their produce shunned, and Spain said Monday it will demand full compensation from Germany for falsely blaming Spanish cucumbers.
"We have told Germany that it must reimburse us for the loss. If it covers 100 percent, which is what we are demanding, the affair will be closed. Otherwise we reserve the right (to take) legal action," Spanish agriculture minister Rosa Aguilar told Spanish public television.
Spain's fruit and vegetables exporters association, FEPEX, Monday estimated the losses as 225 million euros ($328 million) per week since the crisis began, with prices also down 35 percent since May 27, according to producers.
At talks between European Union health ministers in Luxembourg, EU health commissioner John Dalli said Brussels would review the bloc's food safety alert system after Spain said it should be improved and strengthened.
"In future we need to see how the timing of the alerts can be closer to the actual scientific basis and proof," he said, because "something that goes through the rapid alert system is news very quickly."
French farming minister Bruno Le Maire also said he has asked EU agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos for "indemnities to the last cent of losses suffered by vegetable producers in France."
Producers from other countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Romania are also demanding aid.
Russia and Qatar are among states applying temporary bans on fresh-produce exports.
Efforts to find a solution with Moscow are being stepped up ahead of a planned EU summit on Thursday and Friday in Russia, Ahrenkilde added.
However, Russia's envoy to the EU denied Monday that Moscow's ban on EU vegetable imports breached World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
"In the norms of WTO, it talks clearly and unambiguously about the possibility of imposing such bans in the case of threat to the care of public health, to the health and life of people," Vladimir Chizhov said.
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.
Irish farmers have previously benefitted from emergency aid after a dioxin scare in July 2009.
An EU diplomat told AFP that Brussels is also 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.
© 2011 AFP