Consumed fresh and made from buffalo or cow’s milk, mozzarella is arguably Italy’s favorite cheese: a staple on many Italian dinner tables, a prized export and an essential topping for the country’s quintessential food, pizza. It is one of the culinary gems of Campania, the region known for pizza napoletana, sun-drenched San Marzano tomatoes and sweet Sorrento lemons.
But in recent years mozzarella has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. From the batch that turned blue when horrified consumers opened them at home to the high levels of dioxins found in buffalo milk due to illegal dumping of toxic waste by the local organized crime, its trustworthiness has come under suspicion.
A consortium for brand protection
So what can be done to help the many producers who have quality and tradition at heart? What tools do consumers have to help them choose the best mozzarella, not only in terms of taste but also food safety, environmental concerns, legality and authenticity? We asked Antonio Lucisano, director of the Consorzio di Tutela della Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, a group of producers working to protect authentic mozzarella made only from buffalo milk in the Campania region.
“We’re talking about a sector that involves around 1,800 farmers whose animals produce 240,000 tons of milk a year,” says Lucisano, who has been the director of the consortium since 2010. He explains some of the issues that have been affecting the cheese: “To start with, we need to understand that all the problems of the area end up affecting production. For example, part of the province of Caserta has suffered from environmental disasters caused by the “ecomafias” (the sector of the mafia dealing in the trafficking of environmentally hazardous substances). If this was a country that solved problems, the solution would be to provide financial aid to producers and clean up polluted areas before restarting production.”
How much can a PDO do?
Buffalo mozzarella from Campania has been granted DOC status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, “controlled designation of origin.” a quality assurance label for Italian food products, and the European Union’s PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), both of which aim to guarantee that anything called “Mozzarella di Bufala Campana” has been produced only within a designated region. But the term “mozzarella” itself remains uncontrolled.
“We have major difficulties in convincing serious, good producers to stay in the PDO system, especially because our product has an ambiguous name,” says Lucisano. “When we talk about Parmigiano Reggiano or Asiago, we know that only producers who belong to the consortium are allowed to use those names. In the case of Grana Padano, the consortium has even managed to protect not only the Padano denomination of origin, but also the common word Grana. Meanwhile, despite the fact that the name “mozzarella” was coined in Naples in the 17th century, there are mozzarellas being made all over the world.” Just think of all the “mozzarella” made in China…
In any Italian supermarket, you can find fridges stocked with dozens of “mozzarella” cheeses. “In Italy, the big retail channels are colluding in the confusion, putting PDO and non-PDO products in the same line of sight, thus preventing PDO mozzarella producers from setting a higher price than the non-PDO producers.”
Defending the brand to protect consumers
“The only weapon consumers have is knowledge about the brands. To empower them, however, we need the authorities and organizations like Slow Food to work with us to help educate consumers and to understand errors made in the past. We want to offer our fullest collaboration in working towards the shared principle of good, clean and fair. We’re the only Italian consortium to have applied a Code of Ethics and to have established a joint committee made up of 50% farmers and 50% processors.”
“I believe that our task is to talk to citizens and explain how things stand, but we are not always given the opportunity,” he continued. “And they are not always ready to hear what we have to say. For this reason, I’d like to put together a comic that translates the history and story of mozzarella story into something that everyone can grasp immediately”.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. You can read the full version at cheese.slowfood.it