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Mozzarella in Naples Cheaper, Tastes Better Since Dioxin Scare

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By Flavia Krause-Jackson and Alma Davanzo

April 8 (Bloomberg) — A global scare over the safety of Italian mozzarella cheese may be improving its taste, producers and retailers say.

Sales of mozzarella from the Naples region plunged 30 percent last month on concern the water-buffalo milk used to make the cheese was contaminated with dioxin, according to farmers’ union Coldiretti. Prices for the top cheese have fallen to as little as 5 euros ($7.8) a kilo (2.2 pounds) from about 8 euros, according to Coldiretti producers from the region.

Left with a glut of milk, farmers say they’re using more of it in the cheese, and producing a creamier flavor for those prepared to eat it.

“It’s actually helped mozzarella a lot,” Claudio Cinti, a former cheese maker, now at Rome’s gourmet store Sesto Girone, said in an interview. “They use less cow milk and less frozen milk, making for a better, richer mozzarella.”

Countries from France to China banned imports after the scare, which started last month when la Repubblica newspaper reported March 21 that 83 buffalo farms had been quarantined around Naples. The city is the capital of Campania, which has suffered from 15 years of illegal trash dumping and burning that’s contaminated the soil with chemicals such as dioxin, one of the most potent carcinogens.

The region produces 33,000 tons of the milky cheese a year, 90 percent of the country’s output of buffalo mozzarella. About half of all Italians eat the cheese each day, Coldiretti says. More than a gallon of buffalo milk is needed to make one kilo (2.2 pounds) of the purest cheese, which is best eaten within 24 hours of production.

`Bad Situation’

“When the production is too high the quality invariably becomes compromised, so some good has come from a bad situation,” said Ferdinando Cozzolino, who runs the dairy farm La Fenice near Presenzano, a village of 1,700 inhabitants located about 60 kilometers (37.3 miles) from Naples.

For the cheese to be harmful to humans, one would have to eat more than seven kilos (15 pounds) of mozzarella a day, according to the National Institute of Research in Food and Nutrition.

“It’s been a storm in tea cup,” Carlo Cannella, president of Rome-based INRAN and a professor of Nutrition Science at the city’s Sapienza University, said in a telephone interview. “It’s not as good as ever, it’s better.”

Inspecting Farms

Still, the scare over the cheese prompted the government, prodded by the European Commission, to agree to inspect more than 400 farms in the region, disrupting production. Coldiretti estimates the cheese makers in Campania have been losing 500,000 euros a day since the scandal erupted. The price of milk from the water buffalo used to make the cheese fell more than 30 percent to less than a euro per liter, according to Anasb, a trade association of buffalo-cheese makers.

Many locals of Testaccio, a working-class neighborhood on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome, couldn’t afford to shop at the famous Volpetti delicatessen, a magnet for tourists and gourmands. Until now.

“For me it’s like shopping at Tiffany’s, but finally being able to afford it,” said Marta De Santis, a housewife and mother of two, pointing to four fat bufalas, balls of the cheese, that floated in large bowls of water clouded by the buffalo milk.

Garbage Crisis

Producers in the Campania region sell 300 million euros ($469 million) of the cheese a year, and sales have slipped by between 30 million euros and 40 million euros, Coldiretti says. Italy exports more than 15 percent of the premium cheese.

In December, schools and businesses had to shut in some parts of the Campania region as mountains of waste cluttered towns and cities. The government sent in the army to try to clean up tons of trash across a region that is plagued by a shortage of dumps and incinerators.

The scare over the Campania-produced cheese has also fueled sales of buffalo cheese from other regions such as neighboring Lazio, which includes the capital city, Rome. Cinti of the Sesto Girone cheese shop says his sales of the Lazio-produced buffalo cheese are up 30 percent since the dioxin reports.

“Frankly, what’s happening in Naples is a disgrace and gives Italy a bad name,” said Dario Carrera, 34, who works at Rome’s “City of The Other Economy” market, which sells only goods not made by multinational companies. “If the mozzarella scandal is finally making people do something about it, I for one will continue to not eat it.”

Berlusconi’s Bite

Some think the damage will be limited.

“I for one have not been deterred and am still doing well,” said Mika Hisatani, a 33-year-old Kyoto-born businesswoman who has lived in Rome for 12 years and exports Italian delicacies to her native Japan.

Prominent Italians have gone out of their way to show they are still consuming the cheese. Silvio Berlusconi, who leads in opinion polls to be elected for a third time as premier this month, ate mozzarella after a speech in Rome on April 3 to the members of Coldiretti, Europe’s biggest farmers association.

The media mogul-turned-politician feigned collapsing after his first bite into the white ball of cheese and then pretended to take his pulse before biting into some more.

To contact the reporter on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in Rome at fjackson@bloomberg.net


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