Eric Reguly, today at 1:52 PM EDT
Italy has its own version of Mad Cow disease. It hasn't got a name yet, but you could call it Mad Buffalo disease. Buffalo milk, not cow's milk, is used to make Italy's finest mozzarella, the rubbery, and expensive, porcelain-white cheese used in pizza and lasagna. Some of the buffalo milk is contaminated with dioxin and sales of mozzarella are down between 30 and 50 per cent. Japan and South Korea this week banned mozzarella imports.
No one I know is buying buffalo mozzarella, most of which comes from the Campania region around garbage-clogged Naples. The Italians are furious. Not only is mozzarella a dietary staple, it is a symbol of Italy's glorious food culture. Shame on mozzarella translates into shame on Italy.
The Italians blame the Neapolitan Mafia, known as the Camorra, for the mozzarella crisis. They are probably right. The run-off from the Camorra's illegal toxic dumps in Campania has no doubt contaminated the land and the water in some parts of the region. Dioxins are a known carcinogenic (though there are many types of dioxin, ranging from the relatively benign to the outright deadly). Dozens of buffalo herds have been quarantined because of higher-than-normal dioxin levels have been found in the animals' milk. Italy has some 250,000 buffalo whose milk is devoted to mozzarella production.
This being Italy, it's extremely hard for consumers to judge the true health risks. Unbiased opinions are rare and spin is rife. The Italian government today essentially told everyone to relax. Agriculture minister Paulo De Castro slammed what he called “the negative campaign that risks having an important economic and social impact on all products from Campania.”
Note that the minister didn't go so far as to say all buffalo mozzarella is safe. Meanwhile the Italian Confederation of Farmers said the mozzarella panic is not justified because the contamination affects only a tiny portion of the mozzarella farms. But the European Commission is erring on the side of caution. On Tuesday it asked for assurances from the Italian health and food authorities that the mozzarella is safe. It wants an answer by tomorrow.
The tragedy of the mozzarella mess is that everyone saw it coming and almost nothing was done about it. It's been an open secret for years that the Camorra hass been dumping thousands of truck loads of toxic waste on farms (some of which they probably own), in rivers and in caves in Campania. Two years ago Italian author Roberto Saviano wrote a book, called “Gomorra,” about the Camorra's stranglehold on the Neapolitan economy. Several chapters were devoted to the toxic waste racket.
Mr. Saviano said the problem began in earnest in the 1990s, when the Camorra cleverly solved northern Italy's shortage of dumps and incinerator capacity by trucking the waste south and stuffing it into already-packed landfills and unlicensed sites. One cavern was found brimming with the equivalent of 28,000 truckloads of trash.
Because the Mob charges close to market rates to pick up the waste but dumps it for next to nothing, the profits are lavish. "We're talking about six billion euros in two years," Mr. Saviano said in an interview by email in February (he lives under police protection because of the mob death threats against him and rarely gives face-to-face interviews). "Farmlands bought at extremely low prices are transformed into illegal dumping grounds. Putting their own men into the local administration, the Camorra enters the waste business at all levels. … The type of garbage dumped includes everything: barrels of paint, printer toner, human skeletons, cloths used for cleaning cow udders, zinc, arsenic and the residue of industrial chemicals."
The authorities finally caught on in 2002, when the first of the "eco-Mafia" trials began. But the problem persists. In a 2006 study of 196 municipalities in the region, the World Health Organization found "significant excesses" — up to 12 per cent higher than the national average — for stomach, liver, kidney, lung and pancreatic cancer. In the town of Acerra, about 20 kilometres northeast of Naples, sheep are dying because of high levels of toxicity found in the land. Many thousands of buffalo have been slaughtered.
In spite of the effort by the mozzarella makers and the government to remove some of the fear factor, the truth is the dioxin contamination could be widespread in Campania, thanks to the toxic dumps. If so the mozzarella crisis will take months, perhaps years, go go away. Fancy pizza with cheddar instead؟