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ROME (Reuters Life!) - Producers of Italy's trademark buffalo mozzarella rushed to reassure consumers on Wednesday about their cheese after media reports of tests which revealed nearly one-third had been cut with ordinary cow milk.
The adulterated cheese was traced to a dairy run by Luigi Chianese, president of La Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, an organization of some 200 producers set up to promote and safeguard the quality of buffalo mozzarella.
Random tests on shop-sold mozzarella carried out in November by a police unit specialized in food adulteration revealed that 25 per cent of the samples could not be legitimately classed as buffalo mozzarella because they contained at least 30 per cent cows' milk, Italian media said.
Italy's Agriculture Ministry refused to confirm the test results and Chianese himself told Reuters he was the victim of a "venomous campaign" by his competitors.
The Italian Agricultural Confederation, however, warned the reports could prompt a "domino effect" harming the reputation of the 300 million euro ($426.1 million) a year mozzarella industry, rocked in recent years by contamination fears in the southern Campania region.
Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia said there was no concern over safety standards, merely the quality of some produce.
"Buffalo Mozzarella from the Campania region is good and I encourage people to eat it without any worries," he told La Stampa newspaper.
The ministry has assigned five independent experts -- including a member of the military police -- to supervise the association's production for the next three months.
"The enquiry appointed by Zaia will carry out the necessary controls and will prove that everything is as it should be," Chianese told Reuters, saying initial tests were not conclusive.
It is far from clear how Italians came to use buffalo to make cheese. According to the Bufala Campana organization, the most likely hypothesis is that Arabs brought buffalo to Sicily around 1000 AD. However, it also cites fossil evidence suggesting water buffalo may have originated in Italy.
Today, around 33,000 tons of mozzarella is produced from buffalo milk every year in regions south of Rome, including Lazio, Campania and Puglia. Around 16 per cent is exported, mostly to the European Union.
Lino Martone, head of the union of buffalo breeders, said he had long warned the quality of mozzarella could not be guaranteed by Italy's DOP trademark (Protected Designation of Origin), which was awarded to Campania cheese in 1996.
"Growth in the market has led to an absurd race between producers," he said.
In 2008, police in Campania investigated reports that some cheese was being made with milk contaminated by the carcinogenic chemical compound dioxin, possibly due to the use of tainted feedstock from gangsters involved in illegal waste disposal.
Italian newspapers reported that the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra, was peddling cheese infected with brucellosis, a bacterial disease which causes fever and spreads through contaminated or unpasteurized milk.
However, the buffalo herders' association said police found no evidence of links between mozzarella and the mob.