Italy recalls contaminated mozzarella cheese
By Phil Stewart
ROME (Reuters) - Italy ordered a recall on Friday of mozzarella cheese potentially contaminated with cancer-causing dioxin, as a widening health scare tainted the reputation of one of its best-known culinary products.
Italy's Health Ministry said it was withdrawing products from 25 companies in Campania region, where Italy's best buffalo mozzarella is produced.
News of the recall came moments after France joined a small group of nations that have decided to halt sales of some Italian mozzarella, despite Italy's assurances that none of the suspect cheese was exported. Japan and South Korea had already stopped imports.
The European Commission, which had previously threatened a trade ban unless Rome acted more aggressively, said it was satisfied with Italy's latest effort to contain the scare.
Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema played down the health risks even as he announced a recall affecting an industry which employs 20,000 people and is worth about 300 million euros ($475 million) a year.
"This is a limited phenomenon and once the (recall) measures are completed, we're convinced that we can restore confidence in the quality of a product that remains a symbol of Italian gastronomy," he said.
In Brussels, the European Commission said Italy had also pledged to carry out "constant monitoring" of production sites to ensure no further cases of mozzarella cheese were found with dioxin levels exceeding the EU's maximum permitted levels.
"Taking into account the information that was given today, there is no reason at this stage to take further action at EU level," said Nina Papadoulaki, Commission health spokeswoman.
Italian health officials believe the dioxin is linked to a recent garbage crisis in Naples and the surrounding Campania region.
With dumps in the area full, locals burned piles of rubbish in the streets and in open fields. Health officials say industrial waste was also set ablaze, spreading fumes that in some cases contained dioxin, a toxic chemical.
The bad publicity has made some Italian consumers wary. One mozzarella dealer in Rome said sales to hotels and restaurants had fallen by half.
"We are at the historical minimum level of sales," said dealer Paolo Micocci, comparing the mozzarella scare to panic over mad cow disease and bird flu.
"Scares have hit cows, then fish with mercury, then chicken. ... Now, it's our turn. We'll hang in there."
Italy produces about 33,000 tonnes of buffalo mozzarella a year, with 16 percent of it sold abroad, mostly in the European Union. France and Germany are the major importers but sales have been expanding to other countries, including Japan and Russia.
France ordered its shops on Friday to stop selling all mozzarella cheese from Italy's Campania region, saying it was "as a precautionary measure" pending further tests.
But German authorities said no such move was necessary since Italian authorities had assured them that none of the affected mozzarella from Campania was exported to EU countries.
Italy's biggest farmers' group Coldiretti criticized France, saying the health scare was based on emotion, not science.
"France's reaction is emotional. It follows the wave of emotional reactions in Japan and Korea," said Rolando Manfredini, food safety expert at Coldiretti.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Paris, Jeremy Smith in Brussels, Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin, Roberto Landucci and Antonio Denti in Rome, and Svetlana Kovalyova in Milan, editing by Mary Gabriel)