France may be the biggest country beneficiary of generous EU farm subsidies, but the most individual multi-million-euro hand-outs go to companies in Italy and Spain, according to a study last week.
The three biggest pay-outs last year went to two Italian sugar companies and a low-profile Milan-based banking group, the first in-depth analysis of recently released data showed.
Sugar group Italia Zuccheri got 139.8 million euros (190 million dollars) last year and another, Eridania Sadam, 125 million euros, the study by the Farmsubsidy.org campaign group found.
Italian bank Istituto Centrale delle Banche Popolari Italiane came third with a payout of 96 million euros although adding together the four other handouts it got over the course of 2008 its total came to 276.4 million euros. Meanwhile, another Italian sugar producer, Societa Fondiaria Industriale Romagnola, Irish pre-prepared foods group Greencore and French poultry company Doux were not far behind with multi-million-euro hand-outs.
Such data on the beneficiaries of EU farm subsidies were one of the most closely guarded secrets in the 27-nation bloc until April 30, when European governments had to publish the data.
Germany, for one, is still holding out while the country's courts weigh a case brought by German farmers who argue that publishing the data amounts to a violation of their privacy.
With the data available so far, Farmsubsidy.org sought to shine light on Europe's "farm subsidy millionaires" -- the 710 beneficiaries of EU farm subsidies that pocketed over one million euros last year.
The elite group received 3.2 billion euros in total last year, or slightly less than 10 percent of the 35.81 billion euros in subsidies Farmsubsidy.org was able to account for.
The Common Agricultural Policy's total budget last year was 55 billion euros, but Germany has not revealed its share and other countries such as Poland, the Netherlands and Slovakia have published only incomplete figures.
Although European farming power France is the biggest overall beneficiary of the farm handouts, the country with the most subsidy millionaires is Italy with 180 or 18 percent of the total.
After Italy, Spain is home to the most subsidy millionaires with 165, followed by France with 142, the Netherlands with 47, Belgium 22 and Ireland with six.
Across Europe, sugar companies figure high on the list of the biggest beneficiaries of subsidies as a result of reform that rewards them with handouts for reducing overcapacity.
Since Italy has gone the farthest in restructuring its sugar industry, its sugar producers have received the most aid.
"It's the sign of a reform that's underway and not a fundamental problem," senior European Commission official Kristian Schmidt said.
Despite the recent progress in shedding light on the payouts, campaigners in favour of more transparency believe there is still more to be done.
"European citizens have the right to know what their taxes are being used for. That can only help farmers put an end to suspicion," said Jana Mittermaier with campaign group Transparency International.