German Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed to push for European Union financial assistance for Spanish farmers whose export income dropped sharply after German officials erroneously blamed them for causing the deadly outbreak of E. coli bacteria.
Merkel told her counterpart, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, on Thursday that she regretted the damage that had been caused. German officials at first voiced the suspicion that cucumbers imported from Spain had sparked the widespread infections that now have killed 18 people and sickened more than 1,700 others.
But investigators searching for the cause and origin of the disease have now rejected the Spanish cucumber theory and say they have yet to determine how the disease started. The contagion has now spread to 12 countries, although all but one of the deaths and hundreds of the illnesses have been recorded in Germany.
A Spanish farming group says the country's farmers stand to lose $287 million a week if import bans against the country's agricultural products are not lifted. With the crisis unsolved, Russia said this week said it is banning the import of all fresh vegetables from the European Union - an action the EU immediately called "disproportionate." The EU, which exported $853 million worth of vegetables to Russia last year, said it would seek an explanation from Moscow.
The World Health Organization says this is a rare strain of E. coli bacteria that is highly contagious. Scientists say it is the first time it has caused an outbreak.
The WHO said Thursday that preliminary genetic tests suggest the strain could be a genetic recombination of two different E. coli bacteria.
The outbreak is the deadliest in modern history to involve E. coli, and appears to be the second- or third-largest in terms of the number of people who have become ill.
A food safety expert at the WHO, Hilde Kruse, said the deadly strain has various characteristics that make it more toxic and more virulent than other strains.
With the uncertainty surrounding the latest outbreak, concern about European produce is spreading. The United Arab Emirates on Thursday banned the import of cucumbers from Spain, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Russia said vegetables already imported from EU countries will be seized. The chief of Russia's consumer protection agency, Gennady Onishchenko, urged Russians to avoid imported vegetables in favor of domestic products.
The World Health Organization said Thursday it does not recommend any trade restrictions related to the outbreak.