Mozzarella Meltdown: Cheese Deemed Unsafe

European and Asian nations cease imports, worrying cheese producers in Italy.

March 28, 2008 — -- Every morning Pina Del Vecchio opens her small cheese factory and shop on the outskirts of Caserta, a city in Campania, in the south of Italy. But business is slow these days, and even if she wanted to, she "couldn't sell a kilo!" she screamed during a phone interview with ABC News.

Like many other cheese producers in the region, Del Vecchio is a victim of the mozzarella scare, which started when higher-than-permitted levels of cancer-causing dioxin were found in buffalo milk and mozzarellas.

The news, published in the national newspaper La Repubblica, prompted the Japanese and North Korean governments to block all imports of the cheese from Italy while thousands of kilos of mozzarella remained stuck at customs in Tokyo. Only today, after days of checks, has the blockade been lifted.

In an effort to ease the panic, the Italian health ministry has increased safety checks. The ministry's research found that 25 out of 130 tested cheese factories had traces of dioxin that an official statement classified as "moderately higher than the limit allowed by the European Union regulations."

Consequently, 83 dairy farms that ship buffalo milk to the concerned cheese factories have been sealed off and are undergoing more safety tests, and prosecutors in Naples have placed 109 people under investigation in connection with the inquiry, on suspicion of fraud and food poisoning.

After initially accusing Italy of not taking adequate measures to stop contaminated mozzarellas from hitting the shelves of European markets, the European Union has been satisfied with the action that Italian officials have taken to fulfill the European requests to deal with the case.

Garbage Crisis to Blame?

The cause of the contamination is still a matter of discussion inside Italy.

It is not yet clear what, if any, role Campania's garbage crisis has had in the mozzarella contamination. Health officials believe the waste management crisis that exploded in the area around Naples a few months ago, inundating cities and villages with uncollected rubbish only a few months ago, might account for the higher level of dioxin.

"The presence of dioxin is not due to the garbage itself but to the fact that substances containing dioxin have been burned and the fallout from the smoke brought some dioxin to the ground," Undersecretary of Health Gianpaolo Patta told Reuters.

But the great majority of mozzarella farms are untouched by this form of pollution for two reasons.

First, according to Rolando Manfredini, who's in charge of food safety at Italy's biggest farmers' group Coldiretti, "The toxic fumes concerned only a very limited area and it is impossible that they have affected the whole buffalo mozzarella production."

Second, the production of buffalo mozzarella is strictly controlled because it carries the designation DOP (Denominazione di origine protetta), meaning it has certain protection and quality guarantees certified by the consortium of buffalo mozzarella before being awarded the DOP brand.

The consortium outlines in national newspapers the system of controls that the product has to go through to be awarded the DOP brand.

Cheese-factory owner Del Vecchio told ABC News she now has to pay $350 to get her mozzarella scanned, something she thinks the local sanitary unit should do for her. She also has to pay the DOP consortium to assess the quality of a mozzarella that no one is buying because people are scared.

Health officials, police, agricultural and cheese authorities all guarantee the safe production of mozzarella, the consortium said, adding that the dairies involved in the police seizures were not members of the consortium.

"In Naples, we say where a theft happened we raise the gate," said Gaetano Fierro, from Fierro cheese factory, adding, "our mozzarella is now even more controlled than before, and it is already four or five years that we have to go through safety checks every six months."

Sales Plummet

The challenges presented by the mozzarella scare have left many Italian producers in a panic.

As Del Vecchio puts it, "You can convince the clients who come in the shop that your product is safe, but what about those who don't enter the shop?"

The buffalo production sector employs 20,000 people in Italy and makes 33,000 metric tons of mozzarella a year. Manfredini envisaged that the scare may cause sales at home and abroad to fall by 60 percent.

"While the buffalo mozzarella sale will go down," said Coldiretti's Manfredini, "people will turn to fake products they believe to be safer, without understanding that they will never be as checked as the original mozzarella DOP."