Scandal in Italy: Cheese, Made From Water Buffalo’s Milk, Was Watered Down

January 21, 2010

By ANN WISE
ROME, Jan. 20, 2010

“Scandaloso!” Italians were upset to discover that their favorite mozzarella cheeseMozzarella di Bufala, made from buffalo’s milk — was being watered down with cow’s milk.

Widely recognized as the best, buffalo mozzarella is made only in central Italy, in the area between Naples and Rome, and only using the rich milk of the Asian water buffalo. A government sampling of cheeses across Italy revealed, however, that 25 percent of the cheeses tested also included milk from dairy cows — less expensive, but also less rich.

On Tuesday, the Italian Minister for Agriculture, Luca Zaia, suspended the president of the consortium of buffalo mozzarella producers and replaced him temporarily with a commission to guarantee the quality of the cheese. Even he had watered down his cheese.

“I placed the consortium under the appointed administration after inspections found that even the consortium’s president was watering down his buffalo milk with cow’s milk,” Zaia said.

“In November, controls made in leading supermarkets found that 25 percent of the cheese sold as buffalo mozzarella was fake because it contained 30 percent cow milk.”

Zaia said the cheese is perfectly safe and good to eat, but it does not live up to the rigid standards for the product.

The head of the consortium, Luigi Chianese, vigorously denied diluting his buffalo milk, and said that the results of the tests had to be confirmed. He said it was “inconceivable” that 25 percent of buffalo mozzarella was found to contain cow’s milk.

“What consumers are putting on their tables is real buffalo mozzarella,” Chianese told the ANSA news agency. “This is just an administrative matter that has no repercussions for people’s health.”

But Zaia said that he wanted “to apply zero tolerance for those who are fraudulent in commerce, or who, in any case, deceive consumers.”

“Over the past two years my zero tolerance policy has led to the discovery of many causes of food fraud,” he said.

“The news of the discovery of buffalo mozzarella watered down with cow’s milk is “gravissima” – very serious, “because it concerns a traditional product of our country,” Silvia Basotto, the head of nutrition safety for a citizens’ rights group told ANSA. “It is inadmissible.”

Cherished by cheese connoisseurs, the Mozzarella di Bufala, like many other traditional Italian products, is protected with a special Protected Designation of Origin label, which is meant to guarantee its quality. Buffalo milk is much richer than the milk of dairy cows, and the mozzarella made from it is distinctly different from cow’s milk mozzarella. The typical big ball of buffalo mozzarella has a thin rind and a delicate, slightly sour taste, and produces a milky liquid when cut.

The richness of buffalo milk makes it particularly suitable for making cheese, and farmers have been using it in central Italy since the 12th century.

How the Asian water buffalo came to Italy is still a matter of debate, but the most credible theory is that they were introduced to the area around the year 1000 by Norman kings who brought them from Sicily. They may have been introduced there by Arab traders.

The sight of these black-horned buffalo in the lowlands of central Italy often surprises modern visitors, who associate them with India or Thailand. But in the 12th century, the Italian coastal plains were swamplands, perfect for raising buffalo. They were used to pull plows through the waterlogged soil before they were used for their milk.

Zaia’s move to protect the Mozzarella di Bufala is just the latest blow to this traditional cheese, which is also a prime ingredient in Neapolitan pizza (also protected – with a Guaranteed Traditional Specialty label.

In 2008, tests at hundreds of mozzarella plants showed that the cheese was being produced with milk that contained dangerous levels of dioxin, and mozzarella sales plunged. Last year, police found that some farmers in the area had given the buffalo a human growth hormone, somatropine, which is legal in the U.S. but not in Europe.

Authorities continue to keep a close eye on the Mozzarella di Bufala — which is why Italy is going through the latest culinary scandal.

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