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Italy roiled by a cheese scare

Mozzarella sales fall after dioxin is found in some batches. Officials deny a broad risk, but EU threatens a ban.

March 28, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — With television cameras capturing the moment, Italy's agriculture minister on Thursday ceremoniously devoured pieces of white, chewy mozzarella cheese and proclaimed that there was no reason for alarm.

But alarm is what is engulfing Italy's $500-million mozzarella industry after the cheese that is a beloved quintessential national product came under unsettling scrutiny. The best mozzarella is said to come from the milk of buffaloes that graze in southern Italy near Naples, but the region is spotted with illegal, mafia-controlled toxic trash that Italian governments have failed to clean up for more than a decade.

Tests by Italian officials recently showed higher-than-permitted levels of dioxin, a cancer-causing toxin, in cheese coming from 83 of the nearly 2,000 dairy farms in the Campania region around Naples that produce the top-line buffalo mozzarella.

Japan and South Korea immediately suspended imports of Italian mozzarella. The European Union leadership demanded explanations and scolded Italian officials Thursday for failing to provide adequate information.

The European Commission, the EU's regulatory body, Thursday threatened a Europe-wide ban on Italian mozzarella if better precautions and more forthright accounting are not instituted. A ban would deal a heavy blow to the industry.

"The commission has requested the competent Italian authority to take further urgent measures," the European Commission said in a statement from Brussels.

Panicked Italian authorities struggled to reassure the public that the tainted cheese did not represent a widespread health risk.

"The cases are few, and they have been isolated," said the agriculture minister, Paolo de Castro.

"We would have to eat 7 kilos of mozzarella in a day" -- 15 pounds -- to constitute a potential health problem, said industry official Carlo Cannella, who joined De Castro at the cheese-eating news conference.

Authorities shut down production at the 83 farms that provided milk to mozzarella makers whose cheese showed contamination. Tests are being conducted to trace the origin of the dioxin.

Italy produces 33,000 tons of buffalo mozzarella a year, about 16% of which is exported to other parts of Europe, as well as the U.S., including California, Asia and Australia.

De Castro and other officials insisted that no contaminated cheese was exported. Meanwhile, domestic sales of buffalo mozzarella have fallen by 30% since the scare started two months ago, with a reported loss of $50 million in revenue. Mozzarella cheese is often advertised in stores here as being from Puglia, a region adjacent to Campania.

Mozzarella is best known to American consumers as a highly meltable cheese good on pizzas and salads. Italians eat entire baseball-sized globes of mozzarella, uncooked, sliced and accompanied by tomatoes and fresh basil or prosciutto.

A consortium of Italy's top buffalo mozzarella producers took out full-page advertisements in national newspapers last week to defend their product. The producers said they follow a series of rigorous quality-control measures to qualify for a rating reserved for the top brands, known as DOP.

"Considering these norms, buffalo milk -- before being transformed -- is placed under the most stringent health and chemical controls that guarantee the safety and quality of Campania's DOP buffalo mozzarella," the ad said.

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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