For Italian mozzarella producers, the European Commission's decision to back off from a threatened import ban on the cheese prevented the crisis in the industry from becoming a real disaster.
"Things are going a little better, but we went really close to a catastrophe and it will take us at least a month to get back to normal," said Giuseppe Mandara, one of the biggest mozzarella producers in the Campania region.
AdvertisementThe scare began last week when samples of mozzarella, which is made from buffalo milk, were found to have raised levels of the toxic compound dioxin.
A total of 83 buffalo farms in the southern region were quarantined. Of those, 20 were found to have higher than approved dioxin levels, said junior health minister Gian Paolo Patta.
Italy's decision Friday to recall the contaminated mozzarella did a lot to limit the damage.
After Rome made its announcement, the Commission declared itself satisfied and France lifted restrictions it had already put in place.
Nevertheless, Singapore on Friday joined Japan and South Korea in banning Italian mozzarella sales as a precautionary measure.
Local producers are proud of the special designation awarded to mozzarella cheese by the European Union, which gave the upmarket cheese an exclusive "Made in Italy" tag.
Since they were granted the sought-after status in 1993, production of the cheese has grown by nearly 20 percent a year.
And in restaurants across Italy and beyond, tomato and mozzarella salad has become a staple of the starters menu.
Right now for Mandara however, that does not count for much.
The discovery at his facility of toxin levels slightly over the authorised norms meant an instant loss of 30 percent of his turnover.
His operation normally produces up to 20 tonnes of the cheese a day and exports 45 percent of it around the world.
"What is most serious is that sales have fallen 50 percent in Neapolitan shops and that our main consumers have taken fright," said Alba Mandara, who runs the business with her husband.
And that is bad news not just for them, but for the 110 people they employ.
"We are talking about an unprecedented loss of credibility in mozzarella and, in terms of image, the unjustified association of this contamination with the rubbish crisis in Campania has been disastrous."
Campania and its capital, the port city of Naples, have their own image problems, with the crisis provoked by thousands of tonnes of uncollected rubbish still to be resolved.
For Laetitia Luiga, the chemical engineer who handles quality control at the Mandara facilities, the chances that the higher dioxin levels were produced by the people burning their household rubbish are so remote as to be infinitesimal.
Most of the buffaloes they used were raised in paddocks and 98 percent of them were outside the crisis zone created by the build-up of rubbish, she said.
"And we submit all the milk we use to a battery of tests over and above what the European Union requires," she added.
Whatever the source of the dioxin contaminiation, the Mandara family and their employees want a swift end to the rubbish crisis. Because, as Alba Mandara put it, they felt their business had been tainted by association.
"We need to get past the damage that the piles of rubbish in Naples are doing to the image of mozzarella and stop endlessly associating our region with the activities of the Camorra," the local mafia, she said.
If all local producers pull together to restore the product's reputation, the market could be back on track within a month or two, she insisted.
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