E-coli: Europe Collides

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The EU has taken it upon itself to handle the situation of E-coli. After much discussions the 16 member bloc has a proposition. However the bacterial strain has entered into every sphere of the EU.

The European Union farm chief has proposed giving farmers compensation ?150 million($219 million) to help those slammed by plunging demand for produce amid the worlds deadliest E-coli outbreak.

Farm commissioner Decian Ciolos said EU agricultural ministers were considering if farmers could recoup from the compensation, which is about 30% of the value of the vegetables that cannot be sold because of the E-coli outbreak
EU farmers outside northern Germany, where the crisis is located, have been livid that prices for their crops have plummeted after being erroneously blamed for the contamination crisis.

“We propose ?150 million. We will obviously see what we get,” Ciolos said at a meeting Tuesday in Brussels.
Spain and France, traditional vegetable producers, insisted it would not be enough. “No, Spain does not see it as sufficient,” Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar said. Aguilar said that Spain and a number of other countries had met and drawn up a document proposing a list be made of the products affected and farmers be given between 90 percent and 100 percent of the market price. French Farm Minister Bruno Le Maire backed her.

Since this was a farm meeting, there was no discussion of completion for the victims of the e-coli outbreak. However the EU ministers did say that after the respective agricultural ministers agree to the package, then the next step would be for compensation for the victims.

Plight of farmers

EU farmers have a strong lobby, both in their home nations and in Brussels, and about 35 percent of the entire EU budget already flows to them in the form of subsidies and compensation payments.

The European farmers union COPA-COGECA painted a bleak picture when it compared vegetable prices this year to an average of the past five years. In a letter to EU leaders, the group said cucumber prices have fallen to 5 cents each from 21 cents, tomato prices have sunk from 60 cents to 13 cents a kilogram (2.2 pounds), and lettuce prices have plummeted from 70 cents to 5 cents.

Spanish farmers said they lose some ?200 million a week and Italians cited ?100 million in losses per week. The farmers’ losses stood at ?50 million for the Netherlands and ?30 million in losses per week for both Germany and France.

The federation said vegetable farmers were experiencing “unprecedented economic losses running into several million euros per day.” The crisis was being compounded by the fact that it was hitting just when many vegetables and fruits were ripe and ready for market.

Importance of accurate information

EU health chief John Dalli earlier warned Germany against premature ? and inaccurate ? conclusions on the source of the contaminated food, which spread fear all over Europe and cost farmers millions in exports.

Dalli told the EU parliament in Strasbourg that information from health officials must be scientifically sound and foolproof before it becomes public.

“It is crucial that national authorities do not rush to give information on the source of infection that is not proven by bacteriological analysis, as this spreads unjustified fears (among) the population all over Europe and creates problems for our food producers,” Dalli said.

Over the past days Germany first pointed a finger at Spanish cucumbers, then at local sprouts, before backtracking on both.

Germany’s agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, sidestepped the criticism.”Today is about (finding) a European solution It is a European problem,” she said at the Brussels meeting. Aigner also defended the country’s warnings on Spanish cucumbers and bean sprouts from a German farm, saying both issues were suspicious enough to be alerted.

Russian ban

The EU is also displeased with the role that Russia is playing at the time of the criis. Russia has banned all EU vegetable exports which I firmly centred in Northern Germany.

Briefing reporters in Brussels, Russian Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov defended the ban and, laughing, linked the name of the bacterium with the 27-nation bloc.

“The problem is not with the Russian ban,” Chizhov said. “The problem is with the ? well, I wouldn’t like to say the EU. coli ? but the disease which has struck a dozen countries of the European Union.”

He said the ban was imposed at first because Russian authorities received no information at all on the E. coli outbreak. Even now, he said, the data being given to Russia is mostly statistics rather than information about the cause of the disease.

In response to a question, he said that if the cause is never pinpointed but the region being hit by the outbreak was isolated, the import ban could be regionalized rather than applying to the entire EU. He said he sympathized with European farmers who were losing money. But he added, “No material loss is comparable to the loss of human life.”

Political unrest in Germany

The EU parliament is not the only political organization under fire. The crisis is leading to political fallout in Germany.

German Health Minister Daniel Bahr, a member of the Free Democrats, the junior partner in Germany?s coalition government, has been accused of having underestimated the outbreak.

?He should have put more pressure on the investigation to find the source of the outbreak and he should have been much more open to the public,? said Karl Lauterbach, health expert with the opposition Social Democrats.

Renate K?nast from the opposition Green party, herself a former agricultural minister, criticized the lack of crisis management. ?There is no national action plan, neither for the health sector nor for the agricultural sector,? Ms. K?nast told reporters.

E-coli could determine the future relations between the different EU nations. This could be a fatal blow to the unified Union.

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