The European agriculture commissioner has proposed spending €150m (£135m) to compensate farmers affected by the E coli outbreak by paying them a proportion of the cost of unsold products.
Dacian Ciolos, speaking before emergency talks between EU agriculture ministers, said farmers could receive around 30% of the cost of vegetables they have been unable to sell due to fears over the outbreak in Germany, which has killed 22 people and made more than 2,200 ill.
“We propose €150m. We will obviously see what we get,” Ciolos said.
The plan was immediately rejected as insufficient by Spain, which has suffered disproportionately from the economic impact of the outbreak, in part because it grows a significant share of Europe’s salad produce but also because cucumbers from the country were initially blamed.
“No, Spain does not see it as sufficient,” the country’s agriculture minister, Rosa Aguilar, said. Spain and some other EU countries had drawn up an alternative plan under which farmers would be compensated for between 90% and 100% of market price losses, she said.
Her French counterpart, Bruno Le Maire, has backed the Spanish plan.
The ministers are expected to reach an agreement in principle later on Tuesday. They are coming under intense pressure from the EU farming lobby, which argues that Spanish farmers alone are losing €200m a week due to the outbreak, with weekly €100m losses in Italy.
German consumers are being advised not to eat raw cucumbers, salad leaves or tomatoes, while Russia has banned the import of all vegetables from the EU.
Germany admitted a week ago that Spanish cucumbers were not responsible for spreading the newly identified, virulent strain of the bacterium.
A similar sequence of events took place on Monday when tests on bean sprouts from an organic farm in Lower Saxony, identified by German officials as almost certainly the cause of the outbreak, came back negative.
The EU’s health commissioner, John Dalli, has criticised Germany for rushing out “premature conclusions” about the source of an outbreak, saying such actions spread alarm among the public and damaged the agriculture sector.
“I would like to stress it is crucial that national authorities do not rush to give information on the source of infection which is not proven by bacteriological analysis, as this spreads unjustified fears in the population all over Europe and creates problems for our food producers selling products in the EU and outside the EU,” Dalli said. “While such intensive investigations are ongoing, we must be careful not to make premature conclusions.”
He said the outbreak had been contained to a relatively small area. “I stress that the outbreak is limited geographically to the area surrounding the city of Hamburg, so there is no reason to take action on a European level. [EU-wide] measures against any product are disproportionate,” Dalli told the European parliament.
Two weeks after news of the outbreak emerged, the source of the bacterium remains a mystery. German ministers had said there were “strong and clear indications” that bean sprouts from the Gärtenhof organic farm, 40 miles from Hamburg, spread the E coli. However, a first set of 23 results from 40 samples taken at the farm were negative, Lower Saxony’s agriculture ministry said.
Scientists say the longer the wait for a definite source, the more likely it is that one will never be identified. “If we don’t know the likely culprit in a week’s time, we may never know the cause,” said Dr Guénaël Rodier, an infectious diseases expert at the UN’s World Health Organisation.
German officials said the Gärtenhof farm could still be the source of the outbreak, even if all the tests come back negative.
Bean sprouts had seemed a likely culprit, having previously been implicated in E coli outbreaks in the US and Japan. They are grown in water heated to 38C, ideal for bacteria to flourish. US scientists warn that young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems should not consume them raw, advice now taken up by the UK Food Standards Agency.
Hugh Pennington, the professor who led inquiries into two UK outbreaks of E coli, said: “They have done experimental studies on contaminating bean sprouts and seeing what happens to the bacteria during sprouting, and you can get up to a million-fold increase in bacteria. It’s like incubating a culture of bacteria.”
Spain has threatened legal action against German regional authorities for wrongly identifying Spanish cucumbers as the source, but the commission has stressed that the crisis has affected all EU producers and a continent-wide solution is needed.