ROME — Makers of Italy's prized buffalo mozzarella took out full-page ads in Italian newspapers Friday assuring consumers the cheese was safe after high levels of dioxin were found in some samples of buffalo milk.
The tainted products came from a few buffalo dairies in the southern Campania region, whose reputation as a top agricultural producer already has been tarnished by the months-old garbage crisis that has fueled fears of food contamination.
Dioxin, a chemical environmental pollutant, can be hazardous even in small amounts. When it accumulates in the body, it can be linked to cancer, birth defects and organ failure.
Over the past week, Italian authorities have searched dozens of buffalo dairies and seized milk samples for tests after higher-than-permitted levels of dioxin were discovered in products from 29 mozzarella makers, news reports said.
Prosecutors in Naples have placed 109 people under investigation in connection with the probe, on suspicion of fraud and food poisoning, the ANSA news agency reported.
On Friday, the consortium of buffalo mozzarella makers in Campania took out full-page ads in Corriere della Sera and other national newspapers outlining the system of controls that are in place for its top-branded mozzarella, which carries the designation DOP, meaning it has certain protection and quality guarantees.
Health officials, police, agricultural and cheese authorities all guarantee the safe production of DOP mozzarella, the ad said, adding that the dairies involved in the police seizures were not members of the consortium.
"Considering these norms, buffalo milk _ before being transformed _ is placed under the most stringent health and chemical controls which guarantee the safety and quality of Campania's DOP buffalo mozzarella," the ad said.
The Italian agricultural lobby Coldiretti called for a speedy investigation to determine which dairies were to blame, since buffalo mozzarella is such an important brand domestically and internationally.
The soft and subtly flavored mozzarella is a key ingredient in pizza, but also is eaten uncooked, often alongside prosciutto or with sliced tomatoes and basil.
Coldiretti said 33,000 tons, worth $462.69 million, of DOP mozzarella is produced annually, employing some 20,000 people. Most DOP mozzarella is consumed in Italy, but 16 percent is exported, mostly to European countries but also to Japan and Russia, Coldiretti said.
It was not clear what, if any, role Campania's garbage crisis has had in the mozzarella contamination. However, earlier this year Naples health authorities began screening residents for dioxin contamination amid accusations that toxic garbage was being dumped illegally by the mafia-controlled garbage industry in the area.
Naples and its surrounding area have been plagued by garbage crises over the past dozen years. Dumps close after filling up, and residents _ afraid that toxic garbage is being dumped _ block efforts to open new ones.
A recent study by the World Health Organization found that people living in Campania were not as healthy as residents in the rest of Italy. Mortality rates, particularly from some forms of cancer, are higher in the areas around Naples where the garbage crisis peaked.
Still, Renato Pizzuti, a regional epidemiologist, said a direct link to garbage contamination cannot be made.
"For sure, the population of the Campania region is suffering from some negative health factors, both in terms of mortality, above all, and for some pathologies in terms of morbidity." But in a recent interview with AP Television News, he stressed, "This cannot be directly linked to garbage."