Italy defends mozzarella, Japan blocks imports
By Silvia Aloisi and Miho Yoshikawa
ROME/TOKYO (Reuters) - Italy said on Wednesday only a small number of buffalo mozzarella farms had been found to be using milk tainted with cancer-causing dioxin, seeking to avert a food scare over one of its most famous culinary treats.
Japan and South Korea have suspended imports of the cheese while the European Union has asked Italy for safety assurances after reports some of the cheese was made with contaminated milk. Brussels told Rome to respond by Wednesday at the latest.
"Checks have been made on 132 producers and only in nine cases traces of dioxin have been found," Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told reporters, saying international alarm over the mozzarella was "totally exaggerated and unjustified."
A Japanese health ministry official said Japan had suspended imports on Sunday and was waiting for Italy to provide details.
South Korea, which also halted imports at the weekend, said it would conduct its own tests to see if there was dioxin contamination.
Police near Naples were investigating whether feed given to buffalo herds, which produce the best milk for mozzarella, was tainted, possibly by gangsters involved in illegal waste disposal.
However, health officials said the presence of dioxin appeared to be linked to a garbage crisis earlier this year in Naples and the surrounding Campania region, a top producer of the cheese.
With landfills and dumping sites in the area full, locals burned piles of garbage in the streets and in open fields. Health officials say industrial waste was also set ablaze, spreading fumes that in some cases contained dioxin.
"The presence of dioxin is not due to the garbage itself but to the fact that substances containing dioxin have been burned and the fallout from the smoke brought some dioxin to the ground," Health Ministry undersecretary Gianpaolo Patta said.
"The great majority of mozzarella farms are untouched by this or by other diseases and they are strictly controlled. The public has to avoid the kind of panic we had during the bird flu scare," he told Reuters.
JAPAN WANTS NAMES
Buffalo mozzarella, which costs at least twice as much as mozzarella made with cows' milk, is best known abroad for its use on pizza, although purists eat it on its own or with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
Italy's biggest farmers group Coldiretti said the suspension of imports was a disproportionate response, adding measures had been taken in Italy to boost quality control.
"There is a problem. But it involves only a minor part of the production, maybe less than 1 percent ... The product on the market is safe," Rolando Manfredini, in charge of food safety at Coldiretti, told Reuters.
He added that mozzarella sales at home and abroad may fall 60 percent in the next couple of weeks, hitting the Italian sector which employs 20,000 people and makes 33,000 tonnes of mozzarella a year, 16 percent of which is sold abroad.
The Japanese official said Japan wanted the names of the producers affected by the contamination.
"If we could be provided with the names of these firms, we could again allow cheese from the other producers to enter the country," he said.
Dioxins are a group of toxic chemicals that are byproducts of some forms of combustion and can also come from industry, including paper and pulp production, incinerators and businesses that use chlorine.
(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino in Rome and Svetlana Kovalyova in Milan; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)