Food Law News - EU - 2011

Council Press Release, 7 June 2011

FOOD SAFETY - E. coli outbreak: Discussion at Extraordinary Agriculture Council Meeting

The following is an extract from the minutes of the Extraordinary Agriculture Council meeting held on 7 June 2011 to discuss the E. coli outbreak in Germany.

Following the debate on the E. coli outbreak opened by the Presidency at the informal meeting of agriculture ministers in Debrecen (Hungary), this extraordinary meeting was convened by the Presidency in order to enable Ministers to discuss the EU food safety and market implications of the recent outbreak of E. coli in northern Germany and to hear the Commission on its response to the crisis.

Concerning food safety, all member states deeply regretted the high number of fatalities caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli) contamination in northern Germany. Several delegations pointed out the need to assess the current EU food safety system and improve the dissemination of information between national food safety authorities and the quality of this information. As the source of contamination has yet to be clearly identified, many member states stressed the need to continue investigations along the food chain to restore consumer confidence in the vegetables mentioned as the possible source of contamination at the start of the outbreak. At the moment, it would seem the outbreak has only affected people in northern Germany and people who have visited the region since the beginning of May.

The Commission recalled that all existing EU mechanisms for information sharing and response coordination were triggered as soon as the first cases were reported on 22 May. More specifically, the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) and the Early Warning and Response System for communicable diseases (EWRS) were activated. However, the Commission intends to draw lessons from the current crisis and improve current information systems if needed.

As regards the market implications, the vast majority of delegations expressed serious concerns about the catastrophic situation of the fruits and vegetables sector at the national and EU level. They noted that producers had been deeply affected by a crisis that they had no hand in creating. In the light of the depth of the crisis for many producing countries, producer member states urged the Commission to deploy measures for use in emergency situations in order to provide full compensation to all the concerned producers. Several delegations considered national state aid inappropriate in this case and stressed the need for an EU response to an EU-wide crisis.

The Commission confirmed its intention to invoke the emergency provision in order to partially compensate producers who have suffered great losses. It recalled that the budget is limited to the existing funds. Nonetheless, in the light of the difficult situation of the fruit and vegetables sector, the Commission committed to offer substantial, balanced and justified compensation taking account of the losses incurred, the limits of the rules and the budget available.

Under the current single common market organisation (CMO) rules for fruit and vegetables, measures in this sector primarily come under the responsibility of national producers organisations which can set up operational funds to finance limited withdrawals of products from the market in cases of crisis, co-financed by the EU and the member states. In certain cases, national state aids may also be provided. In emergency situations the Commission may derogate from these rules to the strict extent necessary e.g. by providing up to 100% EU budget financing.

As regards the implications of the crisis on international trade, the Council strongly rejected the recent bans adopted by Russia on EU exports of vegetables and fruits which are causing major economic losses to farmers and traders. In this context it was underlined that the EU should send a strong message to the Russian authorities pointing out that these trade disruptions are scientifically unjustified and disproportionate. The Commission undertook to use the forthcoming EU-Russia Summit as an adequate moment to stress the EU stance on this matter.

In view of the high number of deaths and the huge economic impact of the recent outbreak of E. coli in the EU, the Presidency convened an extraordinary meeting of agriculture ministers. This meeting followed the Council meeting of 6 June at which health ministers were briefed on the latest developments on this outbreak (10986/11) and the informal meeting of agriculture ministers in Debrecen on 31 May for which the subject was added to the agenda.

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