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Spain hotly denies cucumber blame

Published on 30/05/2011

Spain hotly denied Monday its cucumbers had spread a deadly outbreak of E. coli infection and said it will approach the European Union over the "enormous damages" to its industry.

Spain’s farmers say they will suffer millions of euros in lost trade after the German authorities said traces of the bacteria were found on organic cucumbers imported from southern Spain last week.

A highly virulent strain of the E. coli bacteria has been held responsible for killing 12 people in Germany.

Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli can result in full-blown haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a disease that causes bloody diarrhoea and serious liver damage and which can result in death.

But confusion reigned on the source of the outbreak and Spain says there is no evidence so far to prove that the infection started at the vegetables’ origin in Spain rather than in later handling elsewhere.

Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar rejected claims the contamination from Spain.

“At first, from Germany, Spanish cucumbers were identified as being responsible for this situation. It must be said that this is not true and we have to ask the German authorities to wrap up the investigation they are running,” she told a news conference.

“Our understanding is that the problem does not come from the (country of) origin. The European Commission itself underlined that it cannot be affirmed the problem comes from there,” the minister said.

Aguilar said she would seek a European Union response for damages incurred by suspicions raised over Spanish organic cucumbers.

“The image of Spain is being damaged, Spanish producers are being damaged and the Spanish government is not prepared to accept this situation,” said Aguilar.

“The damages to the Spanish sector are enormous,” she said.

Spain’s fruit and vegetable producer-exporter federation, FEPEX, said the the crisis could provoke losses of millions of euros, with a possible cascade effect on other Spanish agricultural products.

“We export nearly 200 million euros a week and we have just had a week with a crisis that affected us very negatively,” said FEPEX director Jose Maria Pozancos after a meeting with Aguilar.

FEPEX said in a statement that the German accusations had created alarm among Euroepan buyers, paralyzed orders for some products and led to cancellations of other orders.

Spain exported 9.4 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables in 2010, of which the biggest share, 24 percent, went to Germany, the federation said. “The economic consequences are already very serious for the Spanish fruit and vegetable sector,” it said.

Spain would activate every aid mechanism available within the World Trade Organization, Aguilar said.

“We will also logically request a response within the European Union framework for the damages and we will also ask Germany to assume its proper responsibility,” she added.