Italy's toxic waste crisis, the Mafia – and the scandal of Europe's mozzarella

It may be the moment when the throwaway society meets its retribution. A shadow this weekend hangs over one of the great staples of modern European life – Italy's mozzarella cheese.

The topping on a billion pizzas, the magic ingredient in a million salads, is at the centre of a major food scare involving pollution, corruption, the Mafia and southern Italy's remarkable crisis in waste management.

It centres on the buffalo milk used to produce the purest form of the rubbery, cream-coloured delicacy, now as prized an Italian export as extra virgin olive oil – mozzarella di bufala. High levels of dioxins, potentially hazardous pollutant chemicals, have been found in buffalo milk in a group of dairies in Campania, the southern province centring on Naples where most mozzarella production takes place.

Italy's public health authorities believe that the contamination is the result of illegal dumping of toxic waste in Campania, where the waste industry is under the control of the Camorra, the local branch of the Mafia, and where Naples and its region are undergoing a major waste management crisis, with disposal facilities either broken or full, and rubbish piling up in the streets.

The scale of the problem is such that it is becoming the cautionary tale par excellence of the modern throwaway society, showing how a major city can be swallowed up by its own refuse and making Naples and its region a symbol for filth around the world.

Over the past week, Italian authorities have searched dozens of buffalo dairies and seized milk samples for tests after higher-than-permitted levels of dioxins were discovered in products from 29 mozzarella makers. After government chemists had analysed milk samples taken from some 2,000 herds of buffalo, the herds attached to 66 dairies have been quarantined pending further investigations, and prosecutors in Naples have placed 109 people under investigation in connection with the inquiry, on suspicion of fraud and food poisoning. Already, sales of mozzarella across Italy are said to have fallen by up to 50 per cent.

Many Italians are naturally linking the buffalo milk contamination to the local waste and pollution scandal. "Of course we don't know for sure scientifically, but the high rate of dioxin is most likely linked to what the buffaloes ate," an Italian environmental official admitted yesterday, adding that the buffalo "grazed in areas where we know that toxic waste has been dumped in recent years".

Health officials are stressing that Italian mozzarella itself is perfectly safe to eat. However, the growing crisis is causing national alarm, and yesterday the consortium of buffalo mozzarella makers in Campania took out full-page advertisements in La Repubblica and other national newspapers outlining the system of controls that are in place for its top-branded mozzarella, which carries the designation DOP (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta), meaning it has certain protection and quality guarantees. Health officials, police, agricultural and cheese authorities all guarantee the safe production of DOP mozzarella, the advertisement said, adding that the dairies involved in the police seizures were not members of the consortium.

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

In Naples, the president of the Association of Authentic Neapolitan Pizza-makers, Antonio Pace, urged the authorities to determine which dairies were to blame so as to prevent damage to the nation's consumption of pizzas, in most of which mozzarella is a key ingredient.

The Minister for Agricultural Policy, Paolo De Castro, cautioned against irresponsible reporting of the inquiry and joined producers in reassuring the public that the risk from dioxins is minimal.

"A negative campaign has been mounted on this theme penalising the very many honest producers who are the overwhelming majority, who every day work for a product that is the pride of our quality agricultural food sector," he said.

The Italian agricultural lobby Coldiretti called for a rapid investigation, since buffalo mozzarella is such an important brand internationally as well as domestically. It said 33,000 tons, worth €300m (£234m), of DOP mozzarella is produced annually, employing some 20,000 people. Most DOP mozzarella is consumed in Italy, but 16 per cent is exported, mostly to European countries but also to Japan and Russia, Coldiretti said. The majority of mozzarella consumed in Britain is manufactured here, although delicatessens and major supermarkets also stock premium brands produced in Campania.

Earlier this year, health authorities in Naples began screening residents for dioxin contamination amid accusations that toxic waste was being illegally dumped in the area. A recent study by the World Health Organisation found that people living in Campania were not as healthy as residents in the rest of Italy. Mortality rates, particularly from some forms of cancer, are higher in the areas around Naples where the rubbish crisis is at its most severe.

This weekend, Neapolitan military and civilian authorities, struggling to cope with the city's rubbish crisis, called on citizens to keep all but the most perishable garbage at home over the Easter holiday to prevent the city's dumps being overwhelmed once again and fresh mountains of rubbish rotting in the streets.

"For the Easter holidays, don't aggravate the emergency – keep at home at least paper, wrapping and cardboard," begged General Franco Giannini, one of the heads of a special rubbish task force appointed earlier this year by the government of Romano Prodi, the caretaker Prime Minister.

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