MADRID (AP) — Spain's exports of fruit and vegetables have ground to a halt, causing major financial losses for farmers, due to Germany's now-retracted accusation that Spanish cucumbers were the source of the E. coli outbreak that killed more than a dozen people.
A Spanish official said Wednesday that the government is considering legal action against German authorities for saying without proof that the bacteria had come from Spanish farms.
"We do not rule out taking actions against Hamburg authorities who have questioned the quality of our products," Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said.
After days of uncertainty Hamburg officials said Tuesday that tests showed that Spanish cucumbers which were examined had traces of a strain of E. coli bacteria, but not the one that caused the outbreak.
German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner defended the Hamburg authorities, saying that given that E. coli germs had been found on Spanish cucumbers they had to warn about it quickly.
The allegations, however, had already created a fear of Spanish produce that caused the country's exports to slump in a matter of days.
Pedro Barato, president of one of Spain's main agricultural associations, Asaja, said Wednesday "the crisis is not over." He said they were still calculating their losses from the incident, adding that truckers, packagers, and bar and restaurant owners had also been hit hard.
Barato said there was a small rise in orders for Spanish produce at wholesale markets on Wednesday but he called this a drop in the bucket for an industry that does €9 billion ($12.95 billion) a year in business.
He said the sector needs an urgent public relations campaign to resurrect the image of Spanish agricultural products and that Asaja will seek compensation for all the lost revenue. He did not clarify if it would be from the Spanish government, the EU or both.
"A lot of damage has been done and someone has to pay," he told a news conference.
A German agriculture ministry official said that so far Germany had not received any compensation claims from Spain. Aigner said the EU was "checking whether there is help available for farmers."
"Many (farmers) in Europe are affected, especially in Spain, but also the Netherlands ... and German farmers are also suffering from big losses," Aigner said.
Spain is one of Europe's top fruit and vegetable producers. It exported nearly 10 million tons last year, with Germany taking a nearly a quarter of the produce, according to the national association of producers and exporters, Fepex.
The southeast province of Almeria is the country's top produce exporter and home to one of two Spanish companies originally cited as possibly being at the root of the outbreak. A bone-dry coastal province, Almeria boasts thousands upon thousands of plastic greenhouses.
"We have worked too hard to build up our image for it to be ruined overnight," said Francisco Vargas, head of the Almeria chapter of Asaja.
An unnamed Dutch firm was also cited by the European Union as being under investigation in relation to the outbreak, and Netherlands Agriculture Minister Henk Bleker said vegetable growers put their losses due to the collapse of exports to Germany at an estimated €30 million a week.
Bleker said he has appealed for an EU crisis package for growers of cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. He said his appeal is supported by countries including Spain, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.
"We are a small step further, but I call on the European Commission to quickly draw up crisis measures."
Daniel Woolls in Madrid, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this report.