By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
MILAN, March 28 (Reuters) - Carefully selecting a lump of fine buffalo mozzarella, a Milan cheesemonger points to a certificate stuck to the glass-fronted fridge which is meant to appease cautious customers about its origins and quality.
Ever since news broke that some of Italy's best mozzarella was being made with milk contaminated with cancer-causing dioxin, Alfredo says customers have been hesitant to buy the cheese until they know where it comes from.
"People see what is happening and they are scared," said the cheesemonger, who asked to be identified by his first name only.
"There has been a small impact. We put up the certificate to show where our product comes from and that helps."
Buffalo mozzarella is one of Italy's best known culinary specialities and a byword for fresh and natural Italian produce. It is known abroad for its use on pizza, but purists eat it on its own or with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
The cheese costs at least twice as much as mozzarella made with cow's milk, and Italy makes 33,000 tonnes of it a year, 16 percent of which is sold abroad.
Seeking to avert a major food scare, Italy has sealed off 83 dairy farms in the southern Campania region around Naples after finding nearly one in five buffalo mozzarella producers were making cheese with higher-than-permitted levels of dioxin.
Italy has told the European Commission it has not exported any contaminated mozzarella but it took the precaution on Friday of ordering a recall of cheese from 25 affected producers from Campania, where Italy's best buffalo mozzarella is produced.
"Seeing what is happening to a symbol of Italian produce makes you want to cry," said Lino Stoppani of upmarket Milan food shop Peck. "We have seen caution. Customers are sensitive. Certainly, there has been a fall in mozzarella consumption."
Officials believe the dioxin levels are linked to a recent garbage crisis in Naples and nearby Campania area, where locals burned rubbish in streets and open fields as dumps were full.
Police have also been investigating whether feed given to buffalo herds was tainted, possibly by gangsters linked to illegal waste disposal.
Italian officials are playing down health risks for the public and say special checks are being made to guarantee the safety of the cheese.
A consumer group has advised Italians not to eat it until the final results of tests and the names of the producers concerned are made public. A leading group of producers said sales were down 30 percent in the first two months of the year, with a revenue loss of 30 million euros ($47.29 million).
On Friday, France became the latest country to halt Campania mozzarella sales. Japan and South Korea have stopped imports of buffalo mozzarella over contamination concerns.
But some consumers in Italy say they are not fearful.
"My first reaction was not to eat it as this is scary," said Milanese pensioner Mario Rossi as he shopped in a supermarket, where rows of mozzarella cheese were stacked, untouched. "But I will continue eating it, though with caution."
At Milan's Obika Mozzarella Bar, a restaurant specialising in quality mozzarella, diners happily munched on the cheese. The restaurant, which has branches in Rome and London as well, says it has not felt any impact from the scare so far.
"Our clients trust us. ... This is something that has scared a lot of people but it is a case of counterfeit," founder Silvio Ursini said by phone, underlining that all cheese used by his restaurants undergoes thorough checks.
Pizzeria owner Pino Malastrana was not worried either.
"I buy four kilograms of it a day," he said, tucking into a plate of buffalo mozzarella. "And I've been using it all up." (Editing by Mary Gabriel)