Italy’s Trash Crisis Taints Reputation of a Prized Cheese
By IAN FISHER and DANIELE PINTO
ROME — Italians often minimize what afflicts them with this philosophy: Without the bad, no one would appreciate the good.
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.
A new trash crisis peaked yet again, and last week fears that food might be contaminated seemed confirmed when health officials announced elevated levels of the carcinogen dioxin in samples of buffalo mozzarella. Last weekend, South Korea banned imports of the cheese, and Italy began scrambling to avoid deep damage to one of its most emblematic products.
“It is a usual sad Italian story,” said Silvio Ursini, 46, who two years ago started Obiká, a restaurant here that specializes in quality buffalo mozzarella.
On Tuesday, Mr. Ursini, along with farmers, producers and government officials, went on an offensive 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.”
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.
Alessandro Cervini, owner of Zazá, an organic takeout pizza place here, said he stopped serving buffalo mozzarella on pizza in January, even though he buys only from top-quality makers.
“Even if we have a certificate, people won’t eat it,” he said. Mozzarella does not have to be made with buffalo milk, and he now uses only cheese made from cows, the type melted on most pizza anyway.
To send a message of concern, Italian health officials are meeting Wednesday to discuss the scale of any contamination and how to end 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.
“Now it is visible,” Mr. Cervini said of the effects of allowing organized crime to keep dumping. “It’s like when the Mafia dumps bodies but you don’t know why. Now you see it.”