A dispute erupted today over compensation payments to European farmers hit by tumbling sales during the deadly E. coli outbreak.
Spain and France scoffed at the amount proposed by EU farm chief Dacian Ciolos who suggested the figure should be €150m – about 30% of the value of vegetables that cannot be sold.
Farmers outside northern Germany, where the outbreak began, have been livid that prices for their crops have plummeted after being wrongly blamed by German health officials for the deaths of 24 people and the poisoning of another 2,400.
Across Europe, people are shunning vegetables, especially cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and beansprouts, and farmers are being forced to leave ripe produce in the fields to rot.
“We propose €150m. We will obviously see what we get,” Mr Ciolos said Tuesday at an EU farm ministers meeting in Luxembourg.
Spain and France, traditional vegetable producers, insisted it would not be even close to enough.
“No, Spain does not see it as sufficient,” Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar said, a stance backed by French Farm Minister Bruno Le Maire.
Ms Aguilar said Spain and several other countries proposed listing the products affected by the crisis and giving those farmers between 90% and 100% of the market price for their produce.
The losses have been staggering – around €417m a week. About 35% of the entire EU budget already goes to farmers in the form of subsidies and compensation payments.
The European farmers union COPA-COGECA said vegetable growers were experiencing “unprecedented economic losses” and the crisis was being compounded because it was hitting just as many vegetables and fruits were ripe and ready for market.
EU health chief John Dalli, meanwhile, warned Germany against any more premature – and inaccurate – conclusions about the source of the contaminated food, telling 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,” he said.
Germany first blamed Spanish cucumbers, then local beansprouts, before backtracking on both.
Tests at an organic farm in northern Germany are continuing, but have not produced any proof it was contaminated with the highly aggressive strain of E. coli that has sent hundreds of people into intensive care.
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 Luxembourg meeting.
Saudi Arabia meanwhile followed Russia’s lead and banned the import of vegetables from Europe.
Russia’s market for EU vegetables, however, is much bigger and the EU has been angry at Moscow for a sweeping ban even though the crisis is firmly centred in northern Germany.