After hearing about the agreement reached by the German city-state of Hamburg with two Spanish horticultural companies in the framework of the "cucumber crisis", Fepex director José María Pozancos has pointed out that they will ponder what line of action needs to be taken following the damage caused to the entire sector.
The head of the Spanish Federation of Associations of Producers and Exporters of Fruits and Vegetables (Fepex) has lamented the slowness of justice, as this extrajudicial agreement closes a dispute that has lasted for six years before the trial began at the second instance court.
The city-state of Hamburg reached an economic agreement with two Spanish horticultural companies to compensate them for wrongly relating them to the epidemic caused by an E. coli infection that caused the death of 56 people in Germany in 2011.
The Hamburg Department of Health reached an economic agreement with the Almeria-based Hortícola Cosa de Almería and the Malaga-based Frunet Bio to compensate both for the damages suffered as a result of the complaint from the Government of Hamburg, which pointed to them as the source of the E. Coli infection. Pozancos recalled that "the procedure was carried out with very little rigor and from the beginning we knew that it had nothing to do with the cucumbers, nor with Spanish vegetables."
"Very serious" damage to reputation and loss of sales
There was a "very serious" damage, caused by a drop in direct sales and a collapse of all markets at origin, with "serious repercussions not only for these two companies, but for the sector as a whole and all links in the chain," pointed out Pozancos.
The manager of Frunet Bio, Antonio Lavao, stated that "the issue can be considered settled." There was a sentence favourable to Spanish companies in 2015, but the German authorities appealed, as the authorities in Hamburg "did not want to continue the judicial process and decided to negotiate compensations."
The agreement, according to Lavao, is "good for both parties, and we are happy and satisfied to be able to settle the issue and put an end to it." Moreover, the fact that they wanted to negotiate and compensate the company financially shows that "something was wrongly done, and that is already a victory."
As remarked by Lavao, the false accusation, without proof, which was never officially taken back, led the company, with 150 employees, to fear for its continuity. "It was all nonsense and we were scared, and its impact lasted for months until we recovered our markets and customers and the situation normalised.
Pozancos stressed that the "reputational damage" was very serious and affected the sector as a whole. It became such a big issue that the European Union approved the allocation of aid to deal with the loss of sales, especially for the Spanish sector, which was the most affected.
He has insisted that they will analyse the actions that can be taken to recover the damages caused to the producers and to all the links of the chain by the "cucumber crisis". Pozancos, in any case, has pointed out that the strength of the Spanish sector is the quality and safety of the products it supplies.
Their reputation was very quickly repaired, "but we cannot allow for such triviality and lack of rigour during a crisis, with it leading to damages and serious economic losses without consequences, and "until now, nobody had admitted guilt," said the director of Fepex.
Regarding the agreement, André Buchholz, spokesperson for the judge of the Provincial Court of Hamburg Kai Wantzen, explained to Efe that the health department of the German city reached an extrajudicial agreement with the Almeria-based Hortícola Costa de Almería and the Malaga-based Frunet Bio before the trial in the second instance.
Hamburg eventually agreed to compensate each of the companies with a figure ranging between 400,000 and 700,000 Euro, as reported without further details by the spokesperson of the Government of Hamburg, Rico Schmidt.
Sources close to the agreement told Efe that the two companies will receive different amounts in proportion to the damages suffered as a result of the complaint by the Government of Hamburg. Also, the costs of the first trial, which Hamburg appealed, will be paid in equal parts, with no further possibility for extrajudicial appeals.
According to the German newspaper Bild, the two Spanish producers had asked the Government of Hamburg for € 2,282,865.38 in compensation after its head of Health, Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks, accused both companies of being the source of the E.coli infection.