Germany vows to restore image of Spanish veg

9th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Spain won German help Thursday to fix the tattered image of its farm produce after being falsely blamed for a killer bug, as Moscow's EU vegetable ban looked set to overshadow a summit in Russia.

"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 in May by Hamburg's top health official blaming Spanish cucumbers as a source for the outbreak of E. coli poisoning that has now killed at least 25 people.

The warning, later withdrawn, prompted an EU-wide alert and dealt Spanish growers a heavy blow as sales slumped across the 27-nation bloc.

Spain's fruit and vegetables exporters association, FEPEX, on Monday estimated losses as 225 million euros ($328 million) per week since the scare began in May.

With other countries also hit, the European Commission raised its offer of compensation Wednesday to 210 million euros ($307 million) for producers across Europe from 150 million euros.

EU health commissioner John Dalli meanwhile defended Germany's handling of the outbreak, including Hamburg's false alarm.

"The authorities in Hamburg had no choice but to issue the warning," Dalli told the Passauer Neue Presse German daily, after crisis talks in Berlin on Wednesday.

"They were obliged to do so and acted correctly. Safety must always come first."

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 EU vegetables, the EU has reacted furiously to the ban, calling for it to be lifted immediately and saying it was at odds with Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organisation.

The search for the source of the outbreak continued, meanwhile.

Investigators found pieces of a cucumber with traces of the killer bacteria in a rubbish container of a family in Magdeburg in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt who fell ill.

But since the rubbish was around two weeks old, no conclusions could be made about how and when the bacteria got into the container, the state social affairs ministry said.

"According to the information we have now, this is not a decisive lead in searching for the origin (of the outbreak)," a spokesman 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 on Wednesday expressed hope that the worst of the outbreak was over, with Health Minister Daniel Bahr saying the number of new infections was falling.

He 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.

Bahr spoke after emergency talks in Berlin with Aigner, counterparts from all of Germany's 16 states, public health institute representatives and Dalli.

The RKI said it was not certain whether the drop in new cases was linked to consumers avoiding the blacklisted vegetables.

Confirmed infections in Germany stood at 2,648 Tuesday in the latest count, with 75 percent of cases in the north of the country, RKI said.

In addition to the 25 deaths in Germany, one woman who had just returned from Germany died in Sweden.

© 2011 AFP

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