E. coli: EU vegetable producers hit hard

By Laurence Peter
BBC News

image captionCucumbers have been thrown away in Romania as they cannot be sold

European vegetable growers are reeling from the impact of the E. coli crisis as consumers fearing contamination boycott produce.

The EU Commission has now increased its offer of compensation to 210m euros (£187m; $307m), a day after having offered 150m euros.

Major producers like Spain, Italy and France had called for more aid at an emergency meeting on Tuesday. They argued that the EU should pay compensation equivalent to 100% of the growers' lost income.

That was ruled out by EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos. He said the 210m-euro figure represented about 50% of the average value of the affected vegetables.

The aid will go to producers of cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, courgettes and peppers.

Hardest hit are fresh vegetable exporters in Spain. There is much anger that Germany initially blamed Spanish cucumbers for the new bug that has put a huge strain on Germany's health service.

The EU farmers' union Copa-Cogeca puts the Spanish losses at about 200m euros a week.

Earnings from Spanish fresh fruit and vegetable exports to Germany were put at 2bn euros in 2010.

In the E. coli crisis Italy is in second place for growers' losses, estimated at 100m euros a week, followed by the Netherlands (50m euros a week).

Compensation claims

The spread of the toxic intestinal bacteria has left 24 dead - nearly all in Germany - and infected 2,400, of whom hundreds are suffering a potentially fatal complication that attacks the kidneys.

The source remains a mystery. After cucumbers the suspicion fell on bean sprouts, but tests proved negative.

A senior Copa-Cogeca official, Albert Jan Maat from the Netherlands, said that in the worst-hit parts of the EU last week all the cucumbers produced were destroyed because sales and prices had plummeted.

After the German health warning about cucumbers, which later proved mistaken, cucumber sales in Germany collapsed by 70%, the German Agricultural Market Information Company (AMI) reports.

The sales drop for lettuce was about 60% and for tomatoes 47%, AMI says.

Even smaller producing countries are reporting significant losses from the crisis.

Romanian officials say their country's cucumber producers are losing about 100,000 euros daily. Domestic sales of cucumbers have slumped by 70%. Romania exports cucumbers to Germany and the Czech Republic.

In the past two weeks in Austria prices of fresh vegetables have collapsed by up to 70%.

Austria's biggest producer of vegetables, LGV, has had to destroy at least 700,000 cucumbers - a loss of nearly 350,000 euros, the state broadcaster ORF reports.

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