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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 January 2008, 15:22 GMT
Disease risk to mozzarella output
By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rome

Water buffalo
It is feared the problem has been exacerbated by organised crime
The production of one of Italy's best known exports, mozzarella, is under threat from an infection spreading through herds of water buffalo.

The Italian government has set up an emergency commission to try and stop the spread of the disease, which affects milk production.

The plains of Campania, around Naples, are home to large buffalo herds.

As much as 30% of the herd who live in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius are reported to be infected.

The area is the exalted home of mozzarella di bufala: not only an essential part of the Italian diet, but one of Italy's most important exports.

But the Neapolitan farmers who make this famous milky cheese are facing a crisis.

In the next two months, the Italian government will start the slaughter of 32,000 buffalo, infected with Brucellosis - a contagious bacterial disease that in livestock leads to abortion, infertility and reduced milk production.

It can be transmitted through food to humans, causing severe intermittent fever - though the milk which produces the cheese is perfectly safe when it is pasteurised.

Mafia 'threat'

Brucellosis has been present in the herd for 10 years.

But the Italian papers say the local vets who are supposed to test and put down infected animals have been intimidated by the local mafia - the Camorra - who also control some of the farms.

Consequently, it is reported, the disease has been allowed to spread to almost 30% of the herd.

Caserta, one of two key mozzarella-producing areas, is the worst affected.

In the coming weeks, armed police will accompany government vets to help with the cull.

They say every infected animal destroyed will be burnt - and it is estimated the cost to the Italian government will be 66m euros ($97m; 49m).

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