The European Commission warned Italy it could follow Japan and South Korea in imposing an import ban on mozzarella cheese, a spokeswoman said Thursday, after high dioxin levels were found in milk used to make it.
The European Union's executive arm set a 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) deadline for Rome to provide more information about contaminated lots of mozzarella made from buffalo milk from the southern region of Campania.
"We will wait until 6:00 pm and if we still haven't had a reply the commission will look at safeguard measures," the commission spokeswoman told AFP, adding that among the possible measures is an import ban.
"The Italian authorities sent some information on Wednesday, but it was not complete," the spokeswoman said.
Although Italian authorities later provided some information, the spokeswoman said Brussels would wait until the deadline had passed to determine if it was sufficient and if measures needed to be taken.
In Rome, Italian Agriculture Minister Paolo De Castro said that all the requested information had been provided to the commission.
According to the information provided so far, the commission spokeswoman said the contamination concerned four holdings and 23 dairy centres, where dioxin levels had been found to be above EU norms while not "excessive" either.
The contaminated products also only went on the local Italian market and were not shipped onto other countries in the European Union or beyond.
The spokeswoman said that it was seeking "the immediate withdrawal from the market of all contaminated products, the name of the buffalo farms placed under bans, the list of contaminated products, information on the control measures put in place and guarantees on prevention measures."
Italian authorities said last week that high levels of dioxin, which increases the risk of cancer, were found in 66 buffalo herds around the city of Naples.
Rome on Wednesday sought to allay the health fears after Japan and South Korea banned imports of the cheese.
Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said the dioxin cases were isolated and warned that overreaction risked causing serious damage.
Most health experts quoted by the Italian media have said that the raised levels do not constitute a danger to health, but domestic sales have already fallen by 30 to 35 percent, according to the body that oversees the product.
Officials have previously said the contamination is probably linked to the Naples region's chronic waste disposal problems, which saw thousands of tonnes of rubbish left undisposed of in past months.
Italy produces 33,000 tonnes of mozzarella per year, with some 250,000 buffalo producing the milk for the product.
Eighty percent is made in Campania, which is Italy's poorest region, according to figures from the Eurostat data agency. Naples is the region's main city.
Sixteen percent of all buffalo mozzarella is exported, with Japan importing 329 tonnes per year and South Korea 10 tonnes.