Sixty-six buffalo herds in the Naples region have been quarantined because of high levels of dioxin found in buffalo milk used to make mozzarella, the ANSA news agency reported Thursday.
Checks were continuing around the southern Italian city and nearby Caserta, an environment official told AFP, following contamination probably caused by the region's chronic waste management problem,
The Caserta region, which counts some 1,900 buffalo farms, is the heartland of buffalo milk mozzarella, a soft cheese served with tomatoes and basil in a Neopolitan speciality, the caprese salad.
"We carried out 109 checks in the past few days" at buffalo farms and cheesemakers, he said, adding that samples would be sent to a specialised laboratory in Teramo, in Italy's central Abruzzo region.
"Of course we don't know for sure scientifically, but the high rate of dioxin is most likely linked to what the buffaloes ate," he said.
He noted that the buffalo "grazed in areas where we know that toxic waste has been dumped in recent years."
Because of a dysfunctional waste disposal system, overloaded treatment centres have reached the tipping point several times since 1994, most recently at the end of December.
The problem is exacerbated by the local Camorra mafia, which controls many dumps in the region and makes a lucrative business out of shipping in industrial waste from companies in the north.
An animal disease prevention institute in Protici, near Naples, that has been monitoring milk and dairy products from 165 companies since January 2007 has cited dioxin "anomalies" at 25 of them.
All had bought milk from among the 66 farms where buffalo have been quarantined the past two weeks.
"To have a harmful effect on health a person would have to consume a large quantity every day over the long term," said an official at the Protici institute, Antonio Limone.
"People can continue to eat mozzarella without a problem thanks to the health service's checks," he told ANSA.