Russia bans EU vegetables over E.coli, EU protests

MOSCOW Thu Jun 2, 2011 1:00pm EDT

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia banned imports of fresh vegetables from the European Union Thursday, accusing Brussels of sowing chaos by failing to give sufficient information about a deadly E.coli outbreak.

The European Commission said Moscow's move was disproportionate. The outbreak has killed 17 people and made more than 1,500 others ill, and food poisoning is spreading from Germany across Europe.

Russia extended a ban on German and Spanish fresh vegetables to cover the European Union because it said Moscow had not been given proper information on the situation despite repeated requests. The source of the infection is still unclear.

"The kind of things that have been happening in the EU for a whole month do not even happen in African countries," Gennady Onishchenko, head of the Russian consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzor, told Reuters by telephone.

"I would call the action of the EU health regulators and the other European bodies responsible for this disgrace unprofessional and irresponsible," said Onishchenko.

The European Commission urged Russia to end its ban immediately.

"The European Commission protested to the Russian Federation this afternoon against the Russian ban imposed earlier today on all EU vegetable exports to Russia, and requested the immediate withdrawal of the measure," the EU executive said in a statement.

European Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent said earlier that the EU Health Commission John Dalli would write to Moscow to express their objections.

The ban comes a week before Russia, whose leaders have often accused Europe and the United States of trying to force their rules on it, hosts EU leaders at a summit in the city of Nizhny Novgorod.

Russia is under pressure from Europe and other trade partners to announce how it will end protectionist measures, including meat import restrictions, as part of its push to join the World Trade Organization this year after an 18-year effort.

Shops in Moscow prepared to dump EU vegetables and consumers expressed a mixture of scorn and pride at the ban, while the foreign ministry quipped that Russian cucumbers were best.

"Every state will protect its market in order not to get these 'gifts', these cucumbers," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters.

"As for the quality of cucumbers, I have tried many myself, but I think that those from the Moscow region are the best -- especially the ones from my own garden," he said.

High-end Russian grocery store chain Azbuka Vkusa, which sources more than 40 percent of all its fresh vegetables and fruits from Europe, said it could replace EU produce with Turkish, Azeri and Russian goods.

Toting a shopping basket filled with grapes and fresh vegetables at a store up the street from the Bolshoi Theater, pensioner Vyacheslav Yegorov called the ban "ridiculous."

"I am not afraid of buying vegetables from any country here... This thing will blow over and be forgotten tomorrow."

But another shopper, Natalya Kuzmina, said that imported food is more likely to have been treated with chemicals and that the ban would help domestic farmers.

Russian Agriculture Minister Yelena Skrynnik played down speculation that Russia could face shortages, saying that imports of vegetables are low in the summer and that most cucumbers and tomatoes do not come from EU nations.

European Union countries exported 594 million euros ($853 million) worth of vegetables to Russia last year while EU imports of vegetables from Russia were just 29 million euros, EU data show. It was not clear what proportion of that was raw.

(Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Alexander Reshetnikov and Elizabeth Shockman in Moscow; writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Kelland, editing by XXX)

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