Italy’s Trash Crisis Taints Reputation of a Prized Cheese
The question now on the table, almost literally, is whether their passion for food — and the money it makes — will finally force action against the lawlessness that is hurting the name of one of Italy’s most revered delicacies: mozzarella made with buffalo milk.
In the last few months, sales of buffalo mozzarella have dropped 40 percent, the product’s trade association says. The problem makes for a near-perfect morality play about Italy: For years, the nation’s paralyzed political class has done little to halt huge-scale illegal dumping of trash, some of it toxic, around Naples. That area happens to produce some of the best mozzarella.
Food may be contaminated as health officials announced they found elevated levels of the carcinogen dioxin in samples of buffalo mozzarella. South Korea has already banned imports of the cheese and Italy is now starting to panic.
Yesterday farmers, producers and government officials launced a mission to persuade more countries not to ban sales.
While the exact cause of the contamination has not yet been established, they said the producers with elevated levels of dioxin in their milk were few and that none belonged to the consortium that receives the Protected Designation of Origin quality seal from the European Union. The protected region, they noted, is big, and much of it is far from illegal trash.
“It really is a problem of criminals making a counterfeit product from God-knows-what,” said Mr. Ursini, who expects to open a branch in New York soon. “Mozzarella-wise, we’re in good shape. I just hope the whole thing doesn’t become a panic.”
The cheese has a long history, and is just one of the foods Italy is famous for.
Much is at stake: In a business that stretches back nearly to antiquity — invading barbarians are believed to have brought the first buffalo from Asia as early as the sixth century — some 30,000 tons of the high-quality protected cheese are produced each year, representing nearly half a billion dollars in sales.
While some buffalo mozzarella is exported to Europe and elsewhere, notably Russia and Japan, Italians eat most of it. They are now eating much less.
Italian health officals are meeting today to discuss the scale of contamination and how to deal with it.
Harder to fix is the larger problem: for decades the Camorra, the Naples organized crime group, has made a profitable business illegally dumping trash, and no one has stopped it.
For now, there are two investigations running. One concerns the larger problem of crime and why Naples periodically floods over with its own refuse. The other focuses on complicity between shady mozzarella producers and local officials who reportedly knew about the contamination.
Still there is hope that this time something may be done, because the damaging is spreading.
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