Page last updated at 18:02 GMT, Friday, 28 March 2008

How Italy's 'white gold' turned sour

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

Delicate and delicious, buffalo milk mozzarella is one of Italy's most famous - and lucrative - export products.

The balls of milky cheese, which travel around the world cushioned in their own protective fluid, are considered one of the finest delicacies, fashioned from fat-rich buffalo milk taken from herds in just a few Italian regions.

A mozzarella maker in southern Italy
Some 20,000 people depend on the mozzarella cheese industry

Yet the news that levels of potentially carcinogenic chemicals, called dioxins, were above legal limits in some of the cheese-producing areas around Naples led to them being rapidly dropped from the menu - both in Italy and beyond.

The European Commission has flexed its regulatory muscle and Japan has seized consignments of the freshly flown-in cheese to carry out its own tests.

While consumers might simply be swapping what they put in their shopping baskets, many of the mozzarella producers - among 20,000 people employed in the industry - are terrified.

'Total disaster'

Francesca Corso, a buffalo mozzarella maker based in Cardito, 10km (six miles) north of Naples, says the scare has been a catastrophe.

The link has already been made between mozzarella di bufala and other 'Made in Italy' products - this is a dangerous step
Rolando Manfredini, Coldiretti

"It simply cannot get any worse. We've had a drop of between 40% and 50% of sales. It is like the cholera outbreak that hit Naples in 1972 - a total disaster," she said from her cheese factory, Caseficio delle Rose. She employs 45 people in a business run by her family for more than three decades.

"And it isn't just the cheese makers - it's the whole sector, from the dairy farmers to the milk distributors - everyone," she added.

She and her team make some 4,000kg (8,800 pounds) of the cheese a week, which is mostly boxed up and shipped to New York and Tokyo.

"We've basically just stopped working, we haven't been making any cheese for several days now," she said.

Domestically, choosy Italian consumers have been turning their noses up at the product, regardless of how many mouthfuls of the stuff are eagerly swallowed by smiling ministers.

Italian ministers eat the cheese during a press conference
Ministers moved swiftly to reassure Italian consumers
Mrs Corso says that sales in her adjacent shop have already plummeted from an average of 600kg a day to just 200kg.

Damage control

Italy's farmers' association, Coldiretti, which represents many of the 2,000 buffalo farmers in the cheese-producing region, says the scare has been inflated by the media.

"The fear has been exaggerated. Mozzarella di bufala is a DOC product, which means that as well as the normal controls it also has to meet additional, stringent EU guidelines. It is a hyper-controlled product," says the organisation's food safety officer Rolando Manfredini.

The market in the cheese has already lost 30m euros ($48m; 24m) - 10% of its total value - and it could lose another 60% over the next 15 days, he warns.

More worryingly though, he says the scare will damage the country's enviable reputation for high-quality foodstuffs.

Campania map
"The link has already being made between mozzarella di bufala and other 'Made in Italy' products - this is a dangerous step," he said.

Scientists agree that a vast quantity of the cheese would have to be consumed at each and every meal to pose a risk. But the European Commission is taking no chances.

"The experts I have talked to don't think there is a serious risk to human health," a commission source said.

"It is important that everything that leaves the EU complies with EU legislation, but it doesn't mean that anyone is getting poisoned. The dioxin levels are over the maximum amount, so measures are needed to decrease the levels."

The mystery remains the source of the contamination, which Italian newspapers speculate may be linked to Naples' long-running rubbish crisis.

The Campania region is under EU investigation over its environment and waste management.

Buffalo herd
Many herds are run by small-scale farmers with as few as five cattle
Scenes of smouldering rubbish piles have already damaged both the southern port city's image and its tourism industry.

But earlier this year the local health authority also began screening residents for dioxin contamination, after rumours that toxic waste was being dumped by the Mafia-controlled waste disposal industry.

Daniela Battaglia, livestock production officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, says dioxins can enter the food chain by a variety of methods.

Prized cheese

"Dioxin can be present in the air, water and soil. An animal could have exposure to it through the air or through animal feed, or through its grazing.

"Normally dioxin comes from by-products of industrial processes - like waste incineration for example," she said.

It is the buffalo milk's high fat content which could concentrate the dioxins in any contaminated milk, she explained.

"The higher the fat content of the contaminated milk, the higher the level of dioxin," she said.

Even some loyal fans of the cheese admit that the scare has forced them to change suppliers. One such is Marco Gravante, who works at a buffalo mozzarella bar in a plush central London department store, where a plateful of the prized cheese sells for about 11 (13 euros; $22).

"We used to get our mozzarella from northern Campania region, but now we are sourcing it from southern Salerno region instead," he said.

"But to be honest, I don't really trust what the media are saying. I come from Campania and, believe me, mozzarella di bufala is one of the best foods on the planet."



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