'Marketplace' Report: Mob Takes Toll on Mozzarella Japan has placed a ban on Italian buffalo mozzarella following findings of high dioxin levels in the imported cheese. The carcinogen is the result of a garbage strike in Naples, which many blame on the mob.
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'Marketplace' Report: Mob Takes Toll on Mozzarella

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'Marketplace' Report: Mob Takes Toll on Mozzarella

'Marketplace' Report: Mob Takes Toll on Mozzarella

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News this is Day to Day and now, mozzarella and the Mob. Japan and South Korea have both blocked the imports of buffalo mozzarella from Italy. They're worried that the cheese is tainted with a cancer-causing chemical and this all could be traced back to the Mafia in Naples, Italy. Marketplace's Bob Moon is here now to explain this connection and Bob, the Mafia in Naples? Are they now in the buffalo mozzarella business? Explain it, please.

BOB MOON: Well, no. There is kind of a very strange link here and as you might imagine, this is really touching off alarm bells for major industry in Italy. Have you ever tried buffalo mozzarella from Italy?

BRAND: I have. It is delicious.

MOON: Yeah. You haven't lived until you have. It cost twice as much as the stuff they make with cow's milk, and they say that buffalo's milk is the best in making this kind of mozzarella. And there are about a quarter of a million buffalo that graze throughout the Naples region. That happens to be the same area that environmentalist officials have been dealing with a garbage crises for more than a decade now, and officials blame it on the local Mafia. The Mafia apparently controls everything from incinerators that are in short supply to many landfill sights, and those landfills are basically full.

So lately it seems the locals have been turning to burning piles of garbage in the streets and in open fields and health officials say that has included industrial waste being burned and it is believed that that has put dioxin in the air. They are also checking to see if it has wound up being in feed, that's been given to the buffalo and there also been a lot of toxic waste dumped illegally. We are apparently talking about thousand of tons here and there is fear that that has led to contamination of the water buffalo herds. Last week, Italian officials put 66 of those herds under quarantine amid these reports of high dioxin levels. Now that is causing worries, as you say, in countries that import this cheese from Italy.

BRAND: So, Japan and South Korea, they are worried that their mozzarella has dioxin in it now?

MOON: Yeah. The Italian authorities say that this is a huge overreaction though. The country's foreign minister says it is totally exaggerated and unjustified. He said they've checked 132 producers, and they've only found nine cases where traces of dioxin turned up. This is a huge industry, Madeleine. It's one of the poorer regions of Italy, and you've got about 20,000 workers. They produce about 33,000 tons of this cheese every year and a big share of that is exported. So you can understand why the Italian authorities are very sensitive about this. They are trying to get out in front of this right now. This is how the country's health ministry addressed the issue today. One official there say the country needs to avoid the kind of panic seen during the bird flu scare.

BRAND: OK, so serious business. What about here in the U.S.? Do we import it?

MOON: Well we do undoubtedly this is being watched by U.S. authorities. We haven't heard anything about any ban or any official reaction here in this country yet. The European Union is very well aware that this could have global impact. It's been pressuring Italy for a long time now to do something about this problem. And with these latest reports, EU officials have asked for safety assurances from the Italian authorities by today. South Korea says it is going to start doing its own testing, just to make sure.

BRAND: OK. Thank you, Bob. That is Bob Moon of Public Radio's daily business show, Marketplace.

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