Germany vows to repair image of Spanish produce
Spanish farmers secured Thursday German help to help fix their tattered image after being falsely blamed for a killer bug, as the EU and Russia got ready to cross swords over Moscow's EU vegetable ban.
Two fresh fatalities pushed the death toll from the outbreak of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) poisoning to at least 27, all but one in Germany, with more than 2,800 people ill in a minimum of 14 countries.
"The German government has agreed to make an effort to improve the image of Spanish produce in Germany," Diego Lopez Garrido, Spain's minister for Europe, said in Berlin after talks with German counterpart Werner Hoyer.
"Twenty-five percent of our vegetable exports are to Germany, it is our most important export market. Therefore it is also the duty of the German government to assist us with promotion."
He described as "unfortunate" a false alarm by Hamburg's top health official two weeks ago blaming Spanish cucumbers as a source for the outbreak that prompted an EU-wide alert, later withdrawn.
"A mistake was made and mistakes remain mistakes but we must move forward together," Lopez Garrido said.
He said Madrid would not sue Hamburg for compensation, and would not get involved in any private lawsuits by Spanish growers, who are losing 225 million euros ($328 million) per week according to the FEPEX umbrella body.
He described as "not necessarily sufficient" a revised offer from the European Commission for compensation of 210 million euros for producers across Europe.
Moscow's blanket ban imposed last week on all vegetable imports from the EU was expected to be a point of contention at a two-day summit between Russian and EU leaders in Nizhny Novgorod starting later Thursday.
With Russia the largest market for its vegetables, the EU has reacted furiously to the ban, calling for it to be lifted immediately.
The search for the source of the outbreak continued, meanwhile.
Authorities in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt played down the discovery of cucumber pieces with traces of the killer bacteria in the two-week-old rubbish of a Magdeburg family who fell ill.
"According to the information we have now, this is not a decisive lead," a spokesman for the state social affairs ministry told AFP.
Tests were continuing meanwhile at an organic sprout farm on which suspicion had fallen at the weekend.
Federal Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner told parliament on Wednesday that "there were indications that led back from food eaten by patients to the farm" which meant that a warning not to eat sprouts should remain.
Germany also expressed hope Wednesday that the worst of the outbreak was over, with Health Minister Daniel Bahr saying the number of new infections was falling.
Authorities in Hamburg, the epicentre of the outbreak where hospitals are struggling to cope, concurred on Thursday, saying that the past 24 hours had confirmed a "moderate fall" in the number of new cases.
"Every day hope is growing that we have really passed the peak," Hamburg health senator Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks said.
Bahr added that Germany, which has seen all but one of the deaths from the lethal strain, would maintain its warning against eating raw tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and various sprouts until it finds the mysterious outbreak's cause.
He spoke after emergency talks in Berlin with Aigner, counterparts from all of Germany's 16 states, public health institute representatives and Dalli.
The Robert Koch Institute, Germany's national health centre, said it was not certain whether the drop in new cases was linked to consumers avoiding the blacklisted vegetables.
In a sign that the outbreak was scaring people into avoiding Germany, Britain's rowing team Wednesday withdrew from the World Cup regatta in Hamburg later this month.
© 2011 AFP