MOSCOW -- Russia has banned all imports of raw vegetables from the European Union to prevent the spread of a deadly bacterial outbreak that is puzzling scientists.
The outbreak has already killed at least 17 people and sickened more than 1,500 others, mostly in Germany.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says the E.coli bacteria responsible for the outbreak is a previously unknown variant of the bacteria. WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl today said the strain "has never been detected in an outbreak situation before."
Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's public health chief, said the bacteria's unbridled progression had forced Moscow to impose the embargo.
"The situation is developing, the situation has not been taken under control, and its geography seems to be widening," he said.
Onishchenko said the ban takes effect immediately.
His consumer protection agency, Rospotrebnadzor, has alerted Russian customs authorities and ordered all EU vegetables to be removed from store shelves for destruction.
The move drew an angry response from the European Commission, where spokesman Frederic Vincent described it as "disproportionate" and said Brussels wanted an explanation.
Ordinary Russians, however, do not appear overly alarmed. No case has been reported in the country so far and cucumbers, shunned massively by European shoppers as a suspected source of contamination, remain popular in Russia.
Konstantin Andreyev, a 23-year-old Muscovite, spoke to RFE/RL while shopping at his local supermarket.
"I'm following the issue, but my father is a chemist. Hhe knows about all this, and he says Russia doesn't import German cucumbers anyway," Andreyev said. "He asked about it in this shop and he says it's safe to buy cucumbers. I trust him, so I'm not really worried."
As a precaution, Onishchenko has encouraged Russians to consume homegrown vegetables. But many city dwellers relying largely on imports today voiced frustration at empty shop shelves.
"There is usually a wide choice of vegetables in this shop, but now shelves are completely empty," said Olga Osypova, a 65-year-old Moscow pensioner. "That's because there are no European vegetables, only local ones. There is no cauliflower because it's still too early for cauliflower in Russia. The shelves are normally packed, but today there's nothing."
The embargo extends a ban imposed earlier this week on vegetable imports from Germany and Spain.
Russia Goes First
German and EU officials had first pinned the blame on organic Spanish cucumbers but have since retracted their accusation. Researchers, however, remain at a loss to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak.
Russia is the first country so far to block EU vegetables imports in response to the E.coli scare.
But the speed with which Russian authorities imposed the ban, added to Onishchenko's scathing criticism of EU food standards, is raising eyebrows.
"European health authorities are unable to resolve this situation. This shows that they are helpless and that they lack the necessary mechanisms to investigate such phenomena," he told Russian television. "And this is not just a narrow-field specialist grumbling. What's at stake here, as you can see, is the economy, the life, and the health of the people."
"How many more lives of European citizens does it take for European officials to tackle this problem?" he added.
Onishchenko's warning that the situation in Europe has "worsened sharply" in recent days, however, contradicts the European Union's own assessment.
"According to the latest information we have available from Germany, it appears that the outbreak is on the decline," EU Health Commissioner John Dalli told a news conference on June 1. "Fewer people have been hospitalized over the past couple of days than before."
This is not the first time Onishchenko has poured scorn on foreign products.
In a trade dispute viewed as highly political, Russia in 2006 halted imports of wine from Georgia and Moldova, whose pro-Western policies had angered the Kremlin.
Onishchenko, who said the wines contained dangerous pesticides, had previously banned fruits and vegetables from both countries. He extended the ban two months later to two popular Georgian mineral waters.
The combative inspector has also accused U.S. tobacco manufacturers of perpetrating a "nicotine genocide" against the Russian people.
While his agency was not responsible for Russia's controversial two-year ban on Polish meat in 2005, Onishchenko had publicly backed the embargo, citing poor quality controls.
Poland had denounced the ban as politically motivated and retaliated by blocking an EU-Russian cooperation pact.
with contributions by RFE/RL's Russian Service