EU farm ministers to meet on fallout of E. coli outbreak

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Europe's farm ministers are likely to be summoned for emergency talks in Luxembourg on June 17 to discuss the fallout for fruit and vegetable farmers from an outbreak of E. coli poisoning in Germany.

Hungary, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said Friday it aimed to hold an extraordinary ministerial meeting as diplomats tipped June 17 as a likely date while saying a final decision would be taken "by Monday or Tuesday."

"The European Union's Hungarian presidency firmly intends to call an extraordinary meeting around that date," Hungarian spokesman Marton Hajdu told AFP.

Another diplomat said there was "a 95 percent chance the meeting will be called".

The European Commission may ask ministers to consider flying to the rescue of farmers reeling from the sudden loss of appetite for fruit and vegetables following the deaths of at least 18 people in the outbreak.

Agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos pledged last Tuesday to look at possible help for farmers while warning aid would be "limited".

In the German city of Hamburg, epicentre of the disease, a senior doctor said Friday that the outbreak appeared to be stabilising.

Meanwhile, Russia on Friday was joined by Lebanon in slapping a ban on EU-grown vegetables, a move which drew sharp objections from the EU executive.

The European Commission has demanded both immediately withdraw the bans, and in Moscow the EU said Russia's ban was at odds with its bid to join the World Trade Organisation.

Like Russia, Lebanon is not currently a WTO member.

Fernando Valenzuela, head of the EU delegation to Russia, urged Moscow to lift the ban on EU vegetable imports imposed in the wake of the bacteria outbreak, saying it was "not compliant" with its WTO bid.

"One of the aspects of joining the WTO are a number of regulations ... and certainly the ban that has been decided by the sanitary authorities of Russia is not compliant with those rules."

But Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday warned he would not allow Russians to get poisoned for the sake of the WTO.

Putin said he would check the validity of Russia's ban on EU vegetables but expressed bemusement at the idea that the move was against the spirit of WTO membership.

"I do not know what spirit this contradicts," Putin said in comments broadcast by state television. "Cucumbers that make people die really smell bad."

"People really are dying because of eating these products, and we cannot let our people (Russians) get poisoned for the sake of some kind of spirit," he added.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised to consider EU compensation for Spain after the fatal bacteria outbreak was blamed on Spanish cucumbers.

The German leader made the offer in a telephone conversation Thursday with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish leader's office said.

© 2011 AFP

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