British fresh produce distributors hit by the E.coli crisis warn they will consider legal action if they cannot gain access to public compensation funds.

The 210m EU compensation package agreed by member states this week is open to growers only, but distributors said they, too, needed financial support after the collapse in fresh salad and vegetable sales that followed false claims Spanish cucumbers were to blame.

Nigel Jenney of the Fresh Produce Consortium said losses incurred by UK distributors were likely to be significantly greater than the £2.5m the NFU estimated UK growers had lost as a result of the German outbreak. "Although there aren't that many cucumber growers in the UK, there are more than 1,000 traders," he said. "We need clear guidance from Defra that they are willing to support the industry ­beyond the farmgate."

A number of distributors had approached the FPC, asking it to explore legal routes open to distributors, added Jenney, and the FPC might consider bringing collective claims on their behalf. "But we are keen to continue our dialogue with Defra so this can be avoided," he said.

Although the EU compensation fund is closed to distributors, the UK government could decide to offer support. This could include a generic marketing campaign for fresh produce, tailored to the UK market.

Defra said it was working on how to implement the $210m EU package in the UK. Any additional support to the industry would need to be cleared by the EC, under state aid rules.

The EC said it would wait and see how the market recovers before deciding on whether to run an EU-wide marketing campaign for fresh produce.

Meanwhile, plans for ministers to eat salads in front of the cameras at the next EU agricultural meeting have been described as "nice but not enough" by the produce industry.

"We need something on a massive scale and quite quickly," said Frederic Rosseneu at Freshfel.