Italy's 'Armani of Mozzarella' Giuseppe Mandara arrested over 'contaminated cheese' amid accusations of mafia association

 

Milan

Italian newspapers usually only carry three varieties of headline:  “Bufera su…” (egg on the face of …); “Giallo su…” (mystery surrounds…); and “La Lega insorge” (the populist Northern League party is getting its knickers in a twist).

But today a fourth headline – “King of the bufala” – was born, such was the clamour following news that the country’s top mozzarella mogul was in handcuffs, accused of adulterating his prize product.

Bufala means buffalo (which is supposed to supply the milk from which the top cheese is made) but also hoax or fraud –the likely indictments which threaten the cheese king with jail time.

Additional accusations of mafia association, while less shocking to your average Italian, mean that, if he is proved guilty, the sentence for Giuseppe Mandara, who once called himself the "Armani of Mozzarella", could be a lengthy one.

Police held him and three associates after prosecutors decided there was sufficient evidence that he and his company, the Mandara Group, the biggest producer of buffalo mozzarella in Italy, were effectively controlled by the notorious Casalesi clan of the Camorra mafia, which is based in the Caserta province near Naples. They also seized assets worth €100 million.

Investigators say the company conned consumers by mixing ordinary cow milk with the more expensive and creamier buffalo product. Mr Mandara is also accused of labelling batches of ordinary provolone cheese as a more prestigious variety. One of the Italian judiciary’s wire taps even recorded Mr Mandara telling a colleague: “We’ll pretend we’re stupid, then we’ll be OK.”

For many Italians, adulteration of such a key element of their prized cuisine is regarded with horror. Fabio Vassallo, a Naples-born writer, said: “For us it’s the national cheese: it's an institution for both Italians and Neapolitans. In Campania [the region containing Naples] you don't even have to say ‘buffalo mozzarella’ – when you say ‘mozzarella’ it's a given that it's going to be buffalo.”

Perhaps more worrying is the charge that the Mandara business had traded in noxious substances after it was found that up to two tonnes of buffalo mozzarella, which was taken off the market, was contaminated with ceramic residue from a broken machine. The potential seriousness of this incident was underlined by Mr Mandara’s own intercepted comments; he was recorded telling a colleague that if the bits of tiles were swallowed by a small child “there could be a tragedy”.

For its part, Italy’s mighty mozzarella sector, which also exports to the rest of Europe, Japan and the United States, lost little time in trying to avert a financial disaster, amid fears the industry could go udders-up on news of one company’s adulterated cheese. The board of the consortium of buffalo mozzarella producers convened an emergency meeting at which Mr Mandara's membership was rescinded. In a statement, it expressed its “full confidence in the magistrates operation”. It can also point to the obligatory anti-mafia certificate that came into force for association members at the end of last month.

However, Mr Vassallo said: “I'm not surprised about the arrests: in Caserta there are so many dairy industries that obviously some of them must be run by the Camorra –  the Caserta area is one of the most corrupt in the country and probably not that scrupulous about production standards.”

Prosecutors’ claims that Mr Mandara had received a bailout from the mafia when he was in financial trouble in the 1980s also serve to underline concerns that, in times of economic hardship and credit crunches, organised crime is always ready to step in with offers of assistance that many people or businesses might find hard to refuse.

Nonetheless, Michele Buonomo, the president of the Campania division of the national environmental group Legambiente, was upbeat following the arrest of Mr Mandara. “I applaud the magistrates,” he said. “The criminals of the buffalo mozzarella don’t belong in the land of mozzarella DOP [Denominazone di Origine Protetta or protected name of origin label that is supposed to guarantee the quality of buffalo mozzarella]…  The investigations and the rigorousness of the checks guarantee the health of the public.”

And past experience suggest that public health really does need protecting in the context of mozzarella. In 2008, toxic dioxins were detected in the buffalo milk of some local dairies. The carcinogenic chemicals were thought to be present in the soil – and the grass eaten by the buffalo – as a result of the illegal dumping of toxic waste, an activity that makes the Camorra hundreds of millions of euros a year. Later, in 2010, Italian authorities had to issue a Europe-wide alert over possible contamination of mozzarella after balls of the cheese turned a worrying blue colour.

Nor are the problems limited to mozzarella. Last December, a report by the trade groups Unaprol, Coldiretti and Symbola warned that many "extra-virgin" olive oils on sale in Italy were adulterated rip-offs containing cheap oils obtained from any of half a dozen Mediterranean or North African countries, with many contaminated by rancid and mouldy ingredients. It said that four out of five bottles of extra-virgin "Italian" olive oil were actually blended with cheap foreign oil in a five-billion euro (£4.1 billion) a year scam. Warnings have previously surfaced on other key staples of the Italy's celebrated cuisine, including claims that supposedly fine wines are really cheap and nasty imitations from Romania, Poland and even Bolivia. 

It’s tempting to suggest there’s something quintessentially Italian about these “Agrimafia” scandals with their mixture of the sublime (southern Italian food) and the (ethically) ridiculous willingness to debase it for a quick buck.

Mr Vassallo is not sure. “I do know there is easy money to be made. And you can find yourself part of a corrupt system in which it is difficult or impossible to say 'no'," he said. On a positive note, though, he says fans of Italian food can always look to the producers of undisputed quality such as Vannulo. “Go to places like this and your faith in real mozzarella is restored."

And eat a Naples pizza or a caprese salad with fresh quality mozzarella and it's easy to see what all the fuss is about.

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits