EU vows to raise farm aid offer after E. coli outbreak

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The European Commission vowed Tuesday to put up more money to aid vegetable farmers reeling from a bacteria outbreak after EU states dismissed a first offer of 150 million euros as insufficient.

Spain and France said the figure presented by the EU's executive arm was well short of the losses suffered by growers whose lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers have been shunned by frightened consumers and banned by Russia.

European agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos made the offer at an E. coli crisis meeting of farm ministers in Luxembourg and came out of the talks pledging to write a "substantially" bigger cheque.

He indicated he would come up with a new figure as early as Wednesday, but warned that it would be difficult to meet demands for full compensation after he proposed to cover 30 percent of losses.

"I am ready to raise this 30 percent level, but I don't think that the budget will allow us to reach 100 percent for all goods and all producers," he said, noting that the funds would come from the EU's common budget.

Warning that consumers are losing confidence every day that the outbreak remains a mystery, Ciolos urged German authorities to quickly find the real source of the outbreak that has killed 24 people and whose epicentre is in Hamburg.

Spain, fuming after German authorities wrongly blamed its cucumbers for the outbreak, says the crisis is costing its growers 225 million euros ($330 million) a week.

Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar said several nations signed a document calling for producers to be compensated for 90 to 100 percent of the losses depending on the product.

"Spain is not the only one that will say no to 30 percent," she said.

"It would be very bad for Spanish producers if we entered into a numbers war, which will get us nowhere," she said, adding that Madrid wants any funds to be released immediately.

French counterpart Bruno Le Maire saw the commission's offer as "just a starting point."

French producers "are not responsible for what is happening and are taking a direct hit in the crisis," he said. "They have a right for compensation to the last euro."

The European farmers group, COPA-COGECA, says the crisis is costing the sector 417 million euros per week.

Authorities have yet to identify the source of the outbreak, which has left more than 2,300 people ill in at least 14 countries. German consumers are advised to avoid raw sprouts, cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce.

"I hope that the authorities will be able to give an answer on the source of the infection as quickly as possible," Ciolos said.

"Without this answer, it will be difficult to regain the trust of consumers, which is essential for the market to regain its strength," the commissioner said.

Hopes that the source of contamination had finally been located suffered a setback Monday when initial probes carried out on a farm growing a variety of organic sprouts in the northern state of Lower Saxony proved negative.

© 2011 AFP

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