Spanish farmers blame Germany for crisis

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Almeria

image captionThe conveyer belt normally used for cucumbers is now covered up

Everywhere you look in Almeria there are greenhouses. Plastic sheeting stretches for miles in every direction covering vast crops of fruit and vegetables cultivated to supply the rest of Europe all year round.

But ever since German health officials linked cucumbers from Almeria to a deadly outbreak of E. coli, business here has been in free-fall.

All tests for the rare E. coli strain have now come back negative, but the reputation of Spanish producers has already been shattered.

Fear spreads far faster than facts.

"Our vegetable sales have stopped, 100%, to all countries. First Germany, then everyone cancelled their orders - and fruit sales are down by 70%," explains Javier Diaz, commercial manager at AgroIris farmers' cooperative, which supplies many major European supermarkets.

"Consumers are frightened. It's going to take time to rebuild their confidence and the supermarkets' faith in our produce," he believes, even with the official all-clear from the laboratories.

Knock-down prices

image captionOnly small amounts of fruit and vegetables are being packaged for the domestic market

The cooperative works with around 500 farms, but for the past week its cavernous packing house in El Ejido has been almost empty.

Only 10% of staff are in, operating a couple of conveyor belts, sorting tomatoes and melons for the domestic market at knock-down prices.

Export orders have evaporated and in the packing area for cucumbers all the machinery has been covered over with plastic. At this stage in the season, staff here would normally handle up to 100,000kg of cucumbers a day.

Germany is the biggest market.

There are no official figures, but producers' associations estimate that losses are running at around 200m euros ($290m; £180m) a week, nationwide.

'Really demoralising'

Down a long road flanked with giant hot-houses, Juan Lopez is one of many Spanish farmers struggling to stay afloat.

"It's really demoralising. Sometimes you wonder if it's even worth going on working," he admits, explaining that he's lost more than 20,000 euros already and had to destroy 60,000kg of his cucumber crop.

"Things are very bad," he says.

Juan Lopez still has his staff picking the ripest produce from the neat rows of plants under plastic, but not for market.

The crates of dark green cucumbers they pile up are all taken to be weighed and recorded by a notary before they go to be pulped: future proof of how much has been lost, in case there's compensation.

Juan's hope is that confidence in Spanish produce will recover by the time the smaller fruit is ripe for picking. But with perishable goods, time is critical and Juan can't afford to wait indefinitely.

"We use 400,000 litres of water a day on the cucumbers, and there's the fertilizer too. It's very expensive," the farmer explains. "But they've already cost me a lot so I have to try to keep them going for another week, and hope things improve. It will be hard though."

Like many farmers, Juan Lopez has already had to make several employees redundant; the fate of others depends on future orders.

"If I don't work, I don't eat," frets Juan, a farm labourer snipping big, ripe cucumbers from towering plants. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy in Almeria and the prime source of jobs.

"I don't understand why Germany had to point the finger at us if there was no proof. It destroyed our reputation in an instant," he complains.

Farm staff point out that none of them has fallen sick. To prove their point, one plucks a cucumber from the vine and bites into it.

Costa de Almeria is one of the firms officials in Hamburg first named as a possible source of contamination. All tests - German and Spanish - have now come back E. coli free, but the company calculates it has already lost a million euros in destroyed stock and there's no sign of any let-up.

More of its lorries full of fresh produce were turned back to Spain on Thursday and orders cancelled.

'It's horrendous'

In the back yard of the packing house, men empty crates full of cucumbers into skips for dumping. Inside, other teams unpack cardboard boxes full of harmless aubergines, courgettes, peppers and melons marked "withdrawn" into giant waste bins.

image captionAffected farmers will be pressing for compensation for their wasted crops

"We're filling container upon container with produce to throw away," the firm's deputy finance manager Noelia Perez says. "It's horrendous."

"I'm very angry because we have been falsely accused of being guilty and all our clients had wrong information. The only one guilty is the German government," Ms Perez argues.

She supports a pledge by Spain's Prime Minister to push for "explanations and adequate compensation" for the damage caused.

"I think Spain will look into this. I think it's not legal to accuse people before you know where the focus of the infection is."

There is now some concern that competition and protectionism may be encouraging countries like Russia to impose import bans, rather than considerations of public health.

But most Spaniards agree that finding that real source of the E. coli outbreak in Germany is crucial to starting to lift the stigma of contamination from Spanish produce.

"What the Germans have said so far is not enough," says Juan Lopez, who says the situation has been handled very badly. "I think people want to know where the real problem is. They will remain suspicious of Spain until then."

In the meantime, farmers are being forced to watch in dismay and disbelief as thousands of kilograms of produce - crops they invested so much time and money in - are picked and pulped for fertiliser.