Europe trades barbs over origin of killer bacteria

Russia banned European vegetable imports Thursday as Britain reported an outbreak of the mysterious lethal bacteria that has killed 18, mainly in Germany, and Spain demanded a payback for its farmers.

German authorities have failed to pinpoint the origin of the outbreak, which has infected more than 2,000 people in the last month and dealt a blow to the European farm sector amid official warnings to avoid raw vegetables.

As confusion reigned over the killer strain of E. coli bacteria, Russia said it had blacklisted imports of fresh vegetables from European Union countries with immediate effect and slammed food safety standards in the bloc.

Meanwhile Britain said seven people there had been infected with the bacteria, including three British nationals who had recently travelled to Germany and four German nationals.

Russia's Rospotrebnadzor watchdog said its ban would remain in force until the EU explained what caused the 18 deaths - all but one of them in Germany.

"This shows that Europe's lauded health legislation - one which Russia is being urged to adopt - does not work," consumer watchdog's chief Gennady Onishchenko was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

The European Commission slammed the move as "disproportionate" and demanded an explanation from Russia, whose vegetable exports from Europe amount to around 600 million euros ($868 million) each year.

At the same time the United Arab Emirates has banned the import of cucumbers from Germany, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands over the scare.

But Spain said its own tests on its cucumbers showed no sign of the Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), which can result in full-blown haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) - a disease that causes bloody diarrhoea and serious liver damage.

Of the seven cases in Britain, three had HUS and the other four suffered bloody diarrhoea, the Health Protection Agency said.

Officials in the northern German port city of Hamburg, the epicentre of the outbreak, had last week cited imported Spanish cucumbers as the source of the contamination.

But tests on two Spanish cucumbers there this week showed that while they carried dangerous EHEC bacteria, it was not the strain responsible for the current massive contamination, whose toll in Germany rose to 17 after the death of an elderly woman in Hamburg overnight.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Spain, already struggling with a weak economy and high unemployment, would seek compensation over the false allegations.

"Yesterday, it became clear, with the analyses carried out by the Spanish agency for food safety, that there is not the slightest indication that the origin of the serious infection is any Spanish product," he said in an interview with Spanish national radio.

"Therefore, I would have liked a clearer reaction from the (European) Commission.

"Now we have a very ambitious task ahead of us, which is to recover our good reputation as soon as possible and the trade in all Spanish products."

Spain will also "seek reparations before the relevant authorities in Europe for the harm sustained," he said, after the European Commission lifted its warning over Spanish cucumbers.

Spain's fruit and vegetable exporters estimate they have lost more than 200 million euros a week as 150,000 tonnes of produce went unsold in a Europe-wide reaction to the outbreak.

The EU agency in charge of disease prevention confirmed the very rare strain of bacteria behind the infections, identified as STEC serogroup 0104:H4, but noted its source was still under investigation.

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