Is Italian Garbage Making You Sick?

Photo by the Associated Press.


While in Italy earlier this month, my husband and I cancelled our trip to Naples and headed instead to the north from Rome.

We’d been going to visit the southern region mostly because we wanted to see Mt. Vesuvius and tour the wineries in Campania, where one of my favorite whites — Lacryma Christi, or Tears of Christ — is made. What kept us away? Garbage. It was, we heard, piled to overflowing on the streets of Naples, stinking up the entire place.

It comes out now, the trash may be doing more than just producing an odor and scaring away tourists. It seems to be affecting the quality of food produced on the Italian peninsula, particularly buffalo milk mozzarella, the region’s most prized cheese.

Health officials in several countries have confirmed that there are elevated levels of dioxin, a carcinogen, in shipments of buffalo mozzarella coming out of southern Italy. The governments of France and South Korea have actually banned imports of the cheese until the problem is taken care of. And sales around the world are declining fast: Last week, they were down 40 percent from last year. With widespread coverage of the issue, it’s likely they’ll continue to tank.

Many local vendors have decided to stop carrying buffalo mozzarella from Italy and are recommending their customers try a domestic product instead.

"We are not importing Italian buffalo mozzarella right now because of the concerns with contamination," says Mary Richter, manager of the cheese shop at Surdyk’s. "What we’ve found is even more popular is a company in California called Bubalus Bubalis that produces a very good buffalo-milk mozzarella. We can only get it in during the summer months, but if the demand is there, I think we’ll be able to start getting it pretty darn soon."

Meantime, public servants in Naples are posing for photographs in which they’re very conspicuously eating Italian-made cheese and exclaiming over its superiority. And they always seem to be standing on perfectly clean, garbage-free streets. It’s a miracle.