Police investigate dioxin in Italian mozzarella

ROME (Reuters) - Makers of Italy’s best mozzarella battled on Friday to save the reputation of their cheese after police found some of it was being made with milk contaminated with cancer-causing dioxin.

Police near Naples are investigating whether feed given to buffalo herds, which produce the best milk for mozzarella, was tainted, possibly by gangsters involved in illegal waste disposal.

The scandal is the latest blow to the cheese which used to be seen as by-word for fresh and natural Italian produce.

Sales of buffalo mozzarella plunged 40 percent in January due to health fears when Naples and the surrounding Campania region became inundated with household waste when the garbage disposal system ground to a halt.

In an attempt to stop further damage, the association of buffalo mozzarella makers took out full-page advertisements in Italian newspapers on Friday to state that none of their members were being investigated.

Farmers’ association Coldiretti said the contamination only affected a tiny part of mozzarella producers.

“We need as quickly as possible to separate the ‘bad apple’ from the rest so we can defend what is one of the most representative ‘Made in Italy’ brands: buffalo mozzarella,” it said, promising to cooperate with the investigation.

The Naples mafia -- known as the Camorra -- is heavily involved in waste disposal, particularly the dumping and burning of industrial waste in the Campania countryside, police say.

That has caused contamination of water, soil and air which scientists have linked to higher instances of some cancers in parts of the region.

Best known for its use melted on pizza, in Italy, ‘buffala’ which costs at least twice as much as mozzarella made with cows’ milk, is often eaten on its own or in a salad with fresh tomatoes and basil. Only 16 percent of the 33,000 tons annual production is exported.

Buffalo mozzarella production employs more than 20,000 people, an important industry in one of Italy’s most economically backward regions.

Reporting by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Janet Lawrence