Europe trades barbs over origin of killer bacteria
Russia banned European vegetable imports Thursday and Spain said it would seek compensation over being wrongly blamed for the mysterious lethal bacteria that has killed 17, mainly in Germany.
German authorities have failed to pinpoint the origin of the outbreak, which has sickened hundreds in the last month and hit the European farm sector hard amid official warnings for consumers to avoid raw vegetables.
As confusion reigned over the killer strain of E. coli bacteria, Russia said it would blacklist imports of fresh vegetables from European Union countries and blasted food safety standards in the bloc.
"The fresh vegetable import ban affecting all EU countries went into effect this morning," consumer protection agency chief Gennady Onishchenko said, Interfax reported.
Vegetables already shipped in from the EU "will be seized across Russia", Onishchenko said.
Russia had banned fresh vegetable shipments from Spain and Germany Monday, warning the sanction could soon be applied to all EU countries if it failed to receive a proper explanation as to how the fatal disease was being spread.
The European Commission demanded Thursday that Russia explain its "disproportionate" import ban.
Meanwhile Spain said its own tests on its cucumbers showed no sign of the Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), which can result in full-blown haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) -- a disease that causes bloody diarrhoea and serious liver damage.
Officials in the northern German port city of Hamburg, the epicentre of the outbreak, had last week cited imported Spanish cucumbers as the source of the contamination.
But tests on two Spanish cucumbers there this week showed that while they carried dangerous EHEC bacteria, it was not the strain responsible for the current massive contamination which has killed 15 in Germany and one in Sweden.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Spain, already struggling with a weak economy and high unemployment, would seek compensation over the false allegations.
"Yesterday, it became clear, with the analyses carried out by the Spanish agency for food safety, that there is not the slightest indication that the origin of the serious infection is any Spanish product," he said in an interview with Spanish national radio.
"Therefore, I would have liked a clearer reaction from the (European) Commission.
"Now we have a very ambitious task ahead of us, which is to recover our good reputation as soon as possible and the trade in all Spanish products."
Spain will also "seek reparations before the relevant authorities in Europe for the harm sustained," he said.
The European Commission on Wednesday lifted its warning over Spanish cucumbers after saying it could "not confirm the presence of the specific serotype (O104), which is responsible for the outbreak affecting humans."
"After this development, the European Commission has removed the alert notification on Spanish cucumbers from the Rapid Alert System on Food and Feed," it said in a statement.
Spain's fruit and vegetable exporters estimate they have lost more than 200 million euros ($290 million) a week as 150,000 tonnes of produce went unsold in a Europe-wide reaction to the outbreak.
© 2011 AFP