Updated: Aug 25, 2019
This article originally appeared on Cheeserank.com, a now-defunct division of VaynerMedia.
Mozzarella. We all know it, but only some of us love it. Why?
My personal theory says it's because the variety most prominently available in the US is cow's milk mozzarella--when in fact it's buffalo milk mozzarella that's the real deal. They really are two totally different animals (heh).
While cow's milk mozzarella tends to be firm, dry, and tangy, mozzarella di bufala is creamy, rich, and gooey thanks to its 8.5% butterfat content. When compared side by side, formerly acceptable cow's milk moz suddenly becomes nothing more than six-week-old glorified string cheese. If you haven't indulged yet, trust me--you're missing out.
The decadent buffalo milk mozzarella has slowly gained traction in the States, but continues to face a backslide that began in 2008. That year, multiple reports hit the newswire claiming that large amounts of imported buffalo mozzarella were tainted with high levels of dioxins. "Dioxin" doesn't sound like a healthy word and shockingly, it isn't great.
According to the World Health Organization dioxins are a group of highly toxic persistent environmental pollutants that have been shown to cause multiple reproductive and developmental problems, weakened immune systems, and cancer.
While no one would be exactly thrilled to hear that, food contamination is nothing groundbreaking. But this is no ordinary contamination case, and here's where the mozzarella story takes a turn for the utterly bizarre.
How did toxins get into the cheese into the first place? Dioxins are mostly by-products from industrial processes, and I'm going to take an intellectual leap and assume that most water buffalo aren't pulling half-shifts at the local refinery plant. So how else? It starts from the ground up.
The vast majority of the world's supply of buffalo mozzarella is produced in Italy and comes specifically from Naples and the surrounding area. Naples is also known for having the best pizza in the world (can confirm) and in addition to Sicily, being the biggest hub for the Mafia.
Yes that's right my dear readers, THE MAFIA.
It still exists, and the Camorra is the local branch in control of Napoli. They also happen to be in charge of the waste management system, which seems much less glamorous than you'd think for the Mafiosi.
I don't know much about the Mob, aside from a minor brush in the Bronx a few years ago (that's another story). But, I have to presume they were so busy eating pizza and murdering people--can't have strenuous activity on an empty stomach, after all--that they ignored their trash disposal duties. Perhaps they just didn't give a crap in general.
Regardless of the cause, their massive oversight led to much of the toxic waste management being directed by some guy saying, "Yeah, yeah, sure just dump it over there somewhere," waving off in the general direction of…buffalo pastures.
But was it just "oversight"?
It isn't just local toxic garbage that's been dumped into the countryside for the last 20 years. Allegations abound that the Camorra gang also accepted waste (some nuclear, it's rumored) from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Combined with the illegal waste dumping operations of the Sicilian Mob and other Italian branches, these cats totaled up nearly $16 billion a year in profit.
For some perspective, Warren Buffet, the second richest person in America, netted $13 billion in 2014. McDonald's with over 36,000 restaurants worldwide netted $4.76 billion.
As vitally important as I think cheese is, it's not just the buffalo pastures that were suffering. The trash problem in Naples extends into the streets of the city itself, with piles of rubbish rotting and reeking in every corner.
In the years following the main scandal break in 2008, Italian officials have claimed they've taken steps to control the waste issue. When I visited the city in the spring of 2015, there was absolutely no proof of this. I'll assume the "steps" taken were instead only a cha-cha: one step forward, two steps back. It was a sad takeaway from my visit.
Fortunately, there was something else I found much more enjoyable: the pizza. It was MIND BLOWING.
Interestingly, when I asked the locals why exactly it was so good (and so much better than the rest of Italy), multiple people told me it was because of the Mafia.
Apparently, they loved pizza so much they demanded a certain level of quality from their local pizzerias. Those that didn't come up to snuff simply…disappeared. DUN DUN DUNNN. Only the strong survive, I suppose.
Anyway, back to the Mafia sticking their hands into my cheese.
The problem of toxic waste dumping continued to be so pervasive that in 2014, Italy's Ministry of Agriculture was forced to prohibit the commercial sale of any products harvested between Naples, Castera, and Castel Volturno. This 13.3 square mile area has since been nicknamed "The Triangle of Death."
The ban included buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, and wine produced on the toxic land. The problem is, Italians aren't especially fond of rules in the first place. Even if they wanted to, poor farmers can't financially afford to follow such restrictions.
Think about it. The government essentially swooped in and proclaimed, "Sorry, you can't farm your land here because the local crime syndicate screwed it up. We don't know how to fix it except to just leave it alone for a few decades. Also, we're not going to compensate you in any way, because we assume you do this 'farming' thing for kicks."
So the farmers kept on doing their farming thing, because what else were they supposed to do?
That means there's a very decent chance that any given buffalo mozzarella on the grocery shelf is riddled with toxins.
While it's heartbreaking to give up one of the most delicious cheeses on the planet (it's said that I make sad, distressed noises when cheese is taken away) it's a much worse situation for the residents of The Triangle of Death. Just think: if toxins have made it to finished products like cheese and olive oil, they're even more highly concentrated in the soil and water supply.
According to a study conducted by the Pascale Institute in Naples, the mortality rate from cancer in the area has risen 15-20% since 2005. In some towns, it's up by more than 30%. While reports are conflicted on the actual current cancer rate in the Triangle, most estimates hover around 47% for men and 40% for women.
That is insane.
It's now 2016, and no "further" efforts have been made to curb the waste management issue. Remember that $16 billion a year waste dumping profit I mentioned? I'd wager a hefty wagon of cheese that local government officials get a nice chunk of that in exchange for looking the other way. If you don't believe that, then I've got some excellent beachfront property in Arizona to sell you.
Garbage still piles up in the streets of Naples. Cancer diagnoses in adults and children in the Triangle continue at a horrifyingly solid clip. The Italian government continues to drag its feet on enacting any real change for its residents. As a result, there's no guarantee that buffalo milk mozzarella from the famed Campania region is safe to eat.
It's a bleak state of affairs, but as a fellow cheese lover, I hope you'll join me in encouraging American farmers to pursue domestic production. In the meantime, we'll have to stick to cheese that comes from…well, anywhere else.
Grace Everitt is a published writer & editor with nearly ten years of experience in both digital and print media. She is also the president of Grace Marketing Group, and spends her time bouncing between Florida and California.