Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 11:28 AM
MADRID (AP) -- Spanish farmers are angry that their produce has been singled out as the possible source of a deadly bacterial outbreak in Europe and are already suffering the fallout, as they throw tons of vegetables away daily due to a slump in foreign demand.
The farmers depend on their reputation as providers of quality produce for much of Europe. But allegations that 16 deaths from E. coli, mostly in Germany, were caused by vegetables from Spain threatened to hit them hard just as the lucrative summer season begins.
Spanish farm associations accuse German officials in particular of being rash in singling out two Spanish farming companies as sources of cucumbers tainted with E. coli. They say the officials did not properly ascertain whether the vegetables were contaminated before leaving Spain or after -- along the transport chain or while being handled in Germany itself.
As the investigation into the mysterious outbreak continues, Spain's farmers fear the damage is already done.
They say fear of Spanish produce is spreading in Europe, customers are canceling orders, and farm workers are being laid off in a country saddled with 21 percent unemployment and struggling to overcome recession.
As Spain struggles to emerge from recession, the last thing it needed was to be at the center of a food poisoning scare.
"We farmers are furious, very angry and indignant because we see no explanation for us to be treated this way on the basis of ungrounded information," said Francisco Vargas, a farm leader in Almeria, a bone-dry coastal province that boasts thousands of greenhouses.
The southeast province is Spain's top produce exporter and home to one of two Spanish companies being investigated by the European Union as a source of possibly tainted cucumbers.
"We have worked too hard to build up our image for it to be ruined overnight," said Vargas, head of the local chapter of a farmer's association called ASAJA.
On a normal day, Almeria exports 20 million tons of produce to Germany. "Now there are farmers who are paying 2 cents a kilo to destroy their crops and turn them into compost or animal feed," Vargas said.
Spanish officials and farmers say it is telling that no cases of E. coli infection similar to those that hit Germany and other countries have emerged among Spanish farmers.
"If the bacteria stemmed from the point of origin, we the farmers would be the first ones to get sick because we are in contact with our plants and our families are in contact with our plants. And there have been no cases of that bacterium," said Andres Gongora, a national leader in another farm association, called COAG.
Gongora, who is growing tomatoes this year and hopes for a harvest of 100 tons, said he will start destroying them soon unless the market for them and other vegetables recovers.
And the only way this can happen, Gongora said, is if Germany makes clear that Spanish produce is not to blame for the bacterial outbreak. "We feel powerless," he said.
Retail vendor Geronimo Gutierrez said some Spanish consumers were asking a lot of questions at his stand in Madrid, but jitters were most obvious at the city's main wholesale market, Mercamadrid. Crate after crate of produce that would have gone to France, Germany or Britain were going nowhere May 31.
"Today, the panorama was devastating," Gutierrez said.