Heated fight over E. coli farm payments breaks out

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BRUSSELS (AP) - The EU farm commisssioner says he will offer more than euro150 million ($219 million) in compensation to farmers hurt by the E. coli crisis.

The pledge by commissioner Dacian Ciolos came after Spain and France rejected his initial offer. Farmers have been unable to sell their vegetables as a result of the E. coli outbreak that has killed 24 people and infected over 2,400.

EU farmers say they are seeing losses of around euro417 million ($611 million) a week.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BRUSSELS (AP) _ A heated battle erupted Tuesday over compensation payments to European farmers blindsided by plunging demand during the deadly E. coli outbreak, with Spain and France scoffing at the amount proposed by the EU farm chief.

Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos suggested the European Union give farmers euro150 million ($219 million) in compensation _ about 30 percent of the value of vegetables that cannot be sold because of the E. coli contamination crisis that has killed 24 people and infected over 2,400.

EU farmers outside northern Germany, where the crisis is located, have been livid that prices for their crops have plummeted after being erroneously blamed by German health officials for making people sick.

Across Europe, residents are shunning vegetables, especially cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and sprouts, and farmers are being forced to leave ripe produce in the fields to rot.

“We propose euro150 million. We will obviously see what we get,” Ciolos said Tuesday at an EU farm ministers meeting in Luxembourg.

Spain and France, traditional vegetable producers, insisted it would not be even close to enough.

“No, Spain does not see it as sufficient,” Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar said, a stance backed by French Farm Minister Bruno Le Maire.

Aguilar said Spain and several other countries proposed listing the products affected by the crisis and giving those farmers between 90 percent and 100 percent of the market price for their produce.

The losses have been staggering _ in the neighborhood of euro417 million ($611 million) a week. Spanish farmers say they are losing euro200 million ($293 million) a week while Italians cite losses of euro100 million ($146 million) per week. Farmers in the Netherlands were losing euro50 million ($73 million) a week and those in Germany and France were out euro30 million ($44 million) a week.

EU farmers are one of the most potent political forces in the 27-nation bloc, both in their home nations and in Brussels, and about 35 percent of the entire EU budget already flows to them in the form of subsidies and compensation payments. Since this was a farm meeting, there was no discussion of compensation for victims.

The European farmers union COPA-COGECA painted a bleak picture by comparing vegetable prices this year to an average of the past five years. In a letter to EU leaders, the group said cucumber prices have fallen to 5 (euro) cents each from 21 cents, tomato prices have sunk from 60 (euro) cents to 13 cents a kilogram (2.2 pounds), and lettuce prices have plummeted from 70 (euro) cents to 5 cents.

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