In a move to stop the spread of a new E. coli strain, Russia – the EU's largest market for fresh produce – has banned imports of fresh vegetables from all European Union countries. The decision could further hurt European vegetable sellers, many of whom are already reeling from collapsed demand for their goods.
The measure is designed to stop the spread of so-called EHEC bacteria, a strain of E. coli that has been found on vegetables in several European countries, but mainly in northern Germany. Within the last few weeks, 16 people in Germany and one in Sweden have died after contracting a syndrome associated with EHEC.
The EU called the Russian ban disproportionate.
“The EU commission will write a letter to the Russian government, demanding an explanation,” said commission spokesman Frederic Vincent in Brussels. European fruit and vegetables worth €3 to €4 billion ($4.3 to $5.8 billion) are sold in Russia every year, making it the biggest market for EU fresh produce.
Within the EU, import bans like the one imposed by Russia are not allowed. Member states can remove suspicious products, and inspect and destroy them if they turn out to be contaminated, but not put a blanket ban on them.
EU food safety regulations demand that member countries report threats to public health, which could affect more than one country, to the European Commission. Brussels checks such reports and disseminates the information to the whole Union if the risk is deemed serious.
EU Health Commissioner John Dalli defended the system yesterday after it emerged that warnings against Spanish vegetables based on German research were wrong. “The information we had was the best at the time,” he said.
As a consequence of these warnings, sales of Spanish vegetables collapsed, and Spanish farmers estimate they are losing €200 million ($289 million) per week.
Spanish agriculture minister Rosa Aguilar said her government would consider bringing legal action against the Hamburg authorities that first claimed that Spanish cucumbers were the source of the infection. It later emerged that the EHEC bacteria found on the cucumbers belonged to a strain unrelated to the current outbreak.
The EU warnings on Spanish cucumbers have been lifted in the meantime.
Holger Eichele, spokesman for the German agriculture ministry, defended the Hamburg authorities: “They simply stuck to the rules,” he said Thursday in Berlin.
Scientists are still searching for the source of the problem. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that a new, more aggressive strain of E. coli is believed to be responsible for the outbreak.
Hilde Kruse, WHO food safety expert, said the new strain was a mutated form of two previously known bacteria and had never been found in humans before. How the bacteria got into the food chain is still unclear.