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.
The federation said vegetable farmers were experiencing "unprecedented economic losses" and the crisis was being compounded because it was hitting just as many vegetables and fruits were ripe and ready for market.
EU health chief John Dalli, meanwhile, warned Germany against any more premature _ and inaccurate _ conclusions about the source of the contaminated food, telling the EU parliament in Strasbourg that information from health officials must be scientifically sound and foolproof before it becomes public.
"It is crucial that national authorities do not rush to give information on the source of infection that is not proven by bacteriological analysis, as this spreads unjustified fears (among) the population all over Europe and creates problems for our food producers," Dalli said.
Germany first pointed a finger at Spanish cucumbers, then at local sprouts, before backtracking on both. Tests on sprouts at an organic farm in northern Germany are continuing, but have not produced any proof they were contaminated with the highly aggressive strain of E. coli that has sent hundreds of people into intensive care.
Germany's agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, sidestepped the criticism.
"Today is about (finding) a European solution It is a European problem," she said at the Luxembourg meeting.
But Aigner also defended the country's warnings on Spanish cucumbers and bean sprouts from a German farm, saying both issues were suspicious enough to be alerted.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday followed Russia's lead and banned the import of vegetables from Europe. Russia's market for EU vegetables, however, is much bigger and the EU has been angry at Moscow for a sweeping ban even though the crisis is firmly centered in northern Germany.
Briefing reporters in Brussels, Russian Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov defended the ban and, laughing, linked the name of the bacterium with the 27-nation bloc.
"The problem is not with the Russian ban," Chizhov said. "The problem is with the _ well, I wouldn't like to say the EU coli _ but the disease that has struck a dozen countries of the European Union."
He said the ban was imposed at first because Russian authorities received no information at all on the E. coli outbreak. Even now, he said, the data being given to Russia is mostly statistics rather than information about its cause.
He said he sympathized with European farmers who were losing money. But he added, "No material loss is comparable to the loss of human life."
An expert at the World Health Organization, meanwhile, said time was running out for German investigators to find the source of the outbreak.
"If we don't know the likely culprit in a week's time, we may never know the cause," Dr. Guenael Rodier, director of communicable diseases expert at WHO, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Germany's national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, raised the death toll Tuesday to 24 and the number of infections in Germany to 2,325, with 642 of those people hospitalized in intensive care with a rare, serious complication.
Ten other European countries and the United States have another 100 E. coli cases.
Juergen Baetz in Berlin, Don Melvin in Brussels, Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this story.