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8th May 2021

Anger over EU alert system as E. coli scare hits producers

  • E.coli in a petri dish. German tests are ongoing (Photo: Carlos de Paz)

Spain is calling for the EU's rapid alert system to be reformed after German officials mistakenly labeled organic cucumbers from Spain as the most likely source of a deadly E. coli virus, sending vegetable sales into a downward spin.

EU agriculture ministers are to hold an emergency meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday (7 June) to discuss possible compensation measures for fruit and vegetable producers, after several countries opted to pull Spanish cucumbers off the shelves.

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The decision was prompted after Germany triggered the EU's rapid alert system last month, with the majority of illnesses and all-but-one deaths centred in the EU's largest member state.

Tests later showed that Spanish cucumbers were not the source of the deadly E. coli strain which has caused 22 reported deaths and an estimated 2,000 illnesses across Europe, with German officials now identifying a sprout farm in the north of the country as a potential source.

"We want to express our displeasure at how the crisis was handled, damaging the interests of our country," Spanish health minister Leire Pajin said at a meeting with her European counterparts in Luxembourg on Monday.

"We want to ask of course [for] compensation for the serious and irreparable damages Spain has suffered, and we will also ask the European Commission to strengthen and improve the alert systems on food safety."

EU health and consumer affairs commissioner John Dalli defended the system however. "The EU early warning systems provides a solid base for the EU and member states to share information," he told journalists.

"It is important to make statements when we only have all the facts. But we have to understand that people in certain situations have a responsibility to notify their citizens about possible dangers. The question is where to draw the line ... it's very easy to draw conclusions in hindsight."

But he conceded that "adjustments" were likely to be necessary, with 'suspicion' currently being sufficient for member states to trigger the warning mechanism. "In future we need to see how the timing of the alerts can be closer to the actual scientific basis and proof ... something that goes through the rapid alert system is news very quickly."

EU agriculture ministers are set to hold emergency talks on compensating European vegetable producers on Tuesday, with Brussels labelling a Russian decision to ban European vegetable exports as "disproportionate".

Officials said they hoped the Russians would back down before an EU-Russia summit later this week.

On the question of compensation, the commission's agriculture spokesman stressed that diminished sales were a problem for European producers in general, and not just Spanish.

"The commission is looking at various legal options [for compensation]," Roger Waite told a regular news conference in Brussels. "There was already a drop in consumption before any comment was made about Spanish cucumbers."

Seven EU experts in food-borne diseases were dispatched to Berlin on Sunday to help German authorities trace the source of the current outbreak, with the results of further tests expected later on Monday.

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