- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2011

Leigh Hauter stopped growing sprouts at his Bull Run Mountain Vegetable Farm in Northern Virginia about 15 years ago, because of the devastation he knew it could cause.

“I didn’t want to be involved with it,” he said. “I just didn’t do it, because it’s something that I don’t need to do.”

Sprouts, as well as other vegetables, are considered possible sources of Europe’s deadly outbreak of the E. coli bacteria, which has shaken the continent’s agriculture sector. Mr. Hauter and other American farmers say they are watching closely and taking precautions to prevent the same thing from happening here.

Such an outbreak is unlikely, however, because they say U.S. farmers are held to higher standards.

“We have stricter controls on a lot of this stuff,” said Christine Bushway, CEO of Organic Trade Association. “I’m not saying it can’t happen, I’m just saying we have very strong standards.” She pointed to disinfectants and water sanitizers that growers here use to protect crops.

Officials have identified four U.S. victims of the epidemic, all of whom are being treated after visiting Europe earlier this year. Canadian officials Monday reported the first case in that country, afflicting an Ontario man who traveled to Germany this spring where he consumed local salad products.

Meanwhile, European farmers are still struggling with the outbreak that has killed at least 22 people and sickened more than 2,300. EU Agriculture Commission spokesman Roger Waite said Monday the alliance is seeking a way to compensate farmers in all 27 EU member states who have been affected by a decline in consumer demand.

“Our hope is that we can reach an agreement in principle tomorrow,” he told reporters.

One EU source told Reuters News Agency that the most likely solution being discussed within the commission was to extend an existing EU crisis-prevention program that compensates fruit and vegetable producers for withdrawing products from the market.

Under this plan, EU producers would receive about 30 percent of the total value of unsold products in financial aid paid directly from the EU budget until the end of June, though the exact percentage was still being discussed, the source said.

President Obama may have a chance to discuss the crisis in detail when he welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House Tuesday for a day of talks and an official dinner. Germany has been the epicenter of the outbreak.

In Spain, cucumber farmers are furious after German officials falsely accused them of being the source of the outbreak. They are demanding Germany and the EU reimburse them for estimated weekly losses of $286 million.

“We want to express our displeasure at how the crisis was handled, damaging the interests of our country,” Spanish Health Minister Leire Pajin told reporters. “We want to ask, of course, 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.”

But German officials, who have issued a warning against eating sprouts, tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, offered no apologies for the mistake.

“We had the suspicion, and therefore it was correct to give the corresponding warnings about consumption,” German State Secretary Annette Widmann-Mauz told reporters. “that we had to follow every [suspected] cause and every lead.”

Germany might have wrongly blamed one of its own farms, as well. Over the weekend, officials were quick to point the finger at Gaertnerhof Bienenbuettel farm in northern Germany because it was linked to infections in five German states, but testing on Monday was not conclusive. If the outbreak did start there, it’s long gone and there is no way to prove it, officials said.

But here in the U.S., farmers say this strain of E. coli has not affected business, and they don’t expect it to, because the country does not import many vegetables from Europe.

“We do everything we can to keep the food safe,” said Layne Garett, who works at Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro.

*This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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