EU ag ministers hold emergency E.coli summit as outbreak source remains mystery

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: European union

Europe’s agriculture ministers are to hold an emergency meeting today on the E.coli outbreak as authorities continue their efforts to pinpoint the source of the bacteria that has killed 22 and sickened almost 2,300 people.

The summit comes after German officials yesterday confirmed that preliminary tests on beansprouts from a farm in northern Germany had failed to find traces of the new E.coli 0104 bacteria at the heart of the fatal food scare.

The analyses were carried out on the beansprouts from the farm in Uelzan region, 70km south of Hamburg, after Gert Lindemann, agriculture minister for Lower Saxony, declared there was a clear link between the vegetables and the bacteria strain.

Pressure building

Test results are awaited today on a further 17 batches of the beansprouts seized from the farm. If these are also negative, then it appears that officials will be no nearer finding the source of the outbreak.

Pressure is building on the European Commission and German authorities as the political and economic temperature continues to rise in the wake of attempts to bring the crisis under control.

EU health commissioner John Dalli insisted that the outbreak remains centred in the region around Hamburg in northern Germany and dismissed calls for the introduction of Europe-wide E.coli controls.

Efforts to identify the source remain a priority and he revealed yesterday that experts from the Commission, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) were all in Berlin to assist German scientists in their quest.

RASFF system under scrutiny

Hungary, which currently holds the Commission presidency, indicated that the EU’s food safety notification system – the rapid alert system for food and feed (RASFF) – could come under scrutiny once the current outbreak had been contained.

Speaking after a meeting of EU health ministers, Miklós Rethelyi, Hungarian minister for national resources, said: “Once the epidemic is under controlwe will have to answer whether the alert and rapid systems worked well.”

He said it would be important to see if anything should have been done better, whether lessons could be learnt and what could be done to improve co-ordination.

“Several serious questions will have to be addressed and answers found,”​ he added. “This will be the job of the agriculture ministers.”

Dalli insisted that the EU's rapid alert system had worked, although he conceded "we need to learn lessons as we go along".

In the European Parliament, UK Lib Dem MEP George Lyon called for an independent investigation to find out what had gone wrong, while Austrian centre right MEP Elizabeth Koestinger, said the EU must introduce better food labelling to show the origin and provide traceability throughout the food chain.

Agriculture meeting

The agriculture summit today is also expected to begin hammering out financial aid measures for fruit and vegetable growers.

"I'm not sure that we will actually have a legal proposal on the table tomorrow ... I think our hope is that we can reach an agreement in principle,"​ said the Commission's agriculture spokesman Roger Waite.

Spain is currently threatening to take legal action against Germany over the naming of its cucumbers as the E.coli source last week.

Related topics: Food Safety, Fresh produce

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