SOCHI, Russia Warning starkly of 'poison', Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Russia would not consider lifting a ban on EU vegetable imports until it gets word on the source of a deadly E.coli outbreak.
A week before Russia hosts EU leaders at a summit, Putin used his trademark earthy language to seek the upper hand in a dispute that erupted when Moscow slapped a blanket ban on imports of raw vegetables from the 27-nation union on Thursday.
The EU envoy to Russia urged Moscow to lift the embargo, saying it lacked sufficient scientific grounds and contradicted rules of the World Trade Organization, which Russia is seeking to join soon after 18 years of trying.
In his first remarks on the issue, Putin said in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi that the ban may go against "the spirit of the WTO ... but cucumbers that people die after eating really stink."
"We are waiting for our partners to name at least the source of this infection -- they themselves cannot understand what is happening," he said.
"We cannot poison our people for the sake of some spirit."
Russia's consumer protection agency said in a statement separately it could ease the ban if Germany or the EU provided details about the source of the infection, how it is transmitted and what steps were needed to curb its spread.
Russia has accused Brussels of failing to provide enough information about the E.coli outbreak that has led to at least 17 reported deaths, all but one in Germany, and made more than 1,700 people ill.
"All the countries of the euro zone have argued to death amongst themselves over these cucumbers. Now they are dragging us into the scandal," Putin said.
"I will, of course, check on the justification of the decision by our health services (to implement the ban), but it is necessary to await the appropriate information from our colleagues in the European Commission," he said.
Putin said the ban was bad for Russia because "this is not the autumn, when we have enough of our own produce."
Russia's agriculture minister said on Thursday that the ban would not lead to shortages, citing a decrease in imports in the summer months when there is more domestic produce.
But supermarkets were seeking alternatives to EU vegetables and their customers feared price hikes.
The ban hit "an important part of our trade," EU envoy Fernando Valenzuela told a news conference ahead of next week's summit in Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow, citing EU vegetable exports of nearly 600 million euros to Russia last year.
Valenzuela suggested the ban could undermine Russia's campaign to join the WTO if it is not lifted soon.
"I think we have to look at this situation positively and hope that it will be resolved within a few days, and consequently it should not have any influence in the WTO negotiations," he said.
The EU and the United States are backing Moscow's WTO bid, but hurdles remain and the diplomat vetting Russia's entry has said that it must announce soon it will end protectionist measures if it wants to join this year.
As Putin has emphasized, Russia will not be bound by WTO rules until it joins, ending its long run as the biggest economy outside the 153-member trade rules body.
But Valenzuela advised Russia to play by the rules now.
"As the intention of Russia, which we support fully, is to join the WTO, possibly this year, I think the logic of it is that Russia should voluntarily be already implementing these rules in full," he said. "There is no point ... in waiting until the very last day to do that."
(Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Maria Golovnina)