BRUSSELS, Belgium – Italy must urgently take further action to ensure dioxin-tainted mozzarella does not end up on store shelves, the European Union said Thursday, warning that the bloc could impose a ban on the popular cheese from Italy's Campania region.
The European Commission said Italian health officials had not taken sufficient measures to contain tainted mozzarella by an EU deadline of Thursday were not sufficient to ensure the contaminated product was kept away from markets.
In a statement, the EU executive noted that "no recall of products potentially contaminated has been carried out." It also said surveillance of affected farms was also "too limited."
"Therefore, the Commission has requested the Italian competent authority to take further urgent measures," it said.
EU spokeswoman Nina Papadoulaki warned the EU may consider "safeguard measures" for the region if Italy failed to impose adequate safety measures.
"If we don't get everything that we want ... we will see whether further or any measures need to be taken," Papadoulaki said earlier Thursday.
Samples of the cheese have been found to contain higher-than-permitted levels of dioxins under EU food safety rules.
In Rome, Health Ministry officials insisted Italy was complying with all EU rules.
The soft and subtly flavored mozzarella is a key ingredient in pizza, but also is eaten uncooked, often alongside prosciutto or with sliced tomatoes and basil.
The scare has already led to reports that Japan and South Korea were moving to ban mozzarella cheese made from buffalo milk.
Papadoulaki said neither Asian nation had given any official notification of an import ban.
She said the EU executive, which coordinates a Europe-wide food safety alert system for all 27 member-nations, is taking concerns over tainted mozzarella "very, very seriously," adding that EU officials were in daily contact with Italian counterparts.
Italian officials said Wednesday they had temporarily shut down production at more than 80 cattle farms after detecting higher-than-permitted levels of dioxin in 25 mozzarella-making facilities out of 130 checked.
They said the higher-than-permitted levels of dioxins found in milk samples used for mozzarella-making are likely coming from contaminated cow feed.
The milk is being destroyed, while authorities carry out further checks on farms in southern Italy to determine how the feed got contaminated, the officials said.
An independent nutritionist, Carlo Cannella, said the levels of contamination meant some 7 kilograms (15.4 pounds) of tainted mozzarella would have to be eaten in one meal for it to be dangerous.
Papadoulaki said information the EU had received showed the quantities of the dioxins — dangerous toxins — "were higher than the EU legislation requires, but it was not excessive."
She could not offer exact figures about how much they exceeded EU limits, which are measured in minute pico-gram measurements. But she said they take into account dioxins like PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyl — which have been linked to a range of health problems, including cancer.
The scare involves only mozzarella producers around the Naples region, which has also been under EU investigation over its recent crisis over garbage collection and disposal.
It was not clear what, if any, role Campania's garbage crisis has had in the mozzarella contamination. But earlier this year, Naples health authorities began screening residents for dioxin contamination amid accusations that toxic garbage was being dumped illegally by the mafia-controlled garbage industry in the area.