Sunday, June 27, 2010


Modern transportation facilities have enabled the food industry to move foods from from one corner of the earth to the other seamlessly at minimum cost and "universalization of food" is an inevitable "fait accommpli" whether one likes it or not. But such borderless trade can also bring along with many problems associated with safety concerns. The recent mozzarella cheese contamination episode in Europe has brought this issue to the fore. Italians are a worried lot to day after huge quantities of Mozzarella cheese, imported from Germany and distributed in some of the retail outlets in Italy, were recalled from the market suspected of contamination of unknown nature. As this variety of cheese is consumed by majority of the population there and the consumers are wedded to the cheese made from only buffalo milk, any deviation from the standard creates furor and anxiety amongst them. It was not long ago that there was the episode involving large scale "adulteration" of buffalo milk with cow's milk for making mozzarella cheese raising wide scale hue and cry in the country forcing confiscation of those consignments suspected to have contained traces of cow's milk solids.

More than 50% of the cheese made in Italy uses milk supplies coming out side its border and it is difficult to trace the source of contamination if and when it occurs. Dioxin tainted cheese found some time back in the market also caused some discomfort to the safety authorities highlighting the difficult logistics of surveillance in the continent with practically no border restrictions on trade. It is understandable that Italians are touchy about the quality and safety of mozzarella cheese as more than 60% of the population consume this milk product regularly, that too in significant quantities. Though there have been no major out break of food poisoning on account of mozzarella cheese, occasional minor Salmonella contamination episodes are reported but very infrequently. Some of the microbial contaminants found in cheese include Psuedomonas spp, Enterobacter, E.coli, Enterococcus, Klebsiella pneumoniae and some yeasts and molds. Generally the product is traded when it is not less than 5 days old and not more than 15 days old at a temperature of 4-6C.

It is against this context one has to see the latest mozzarella contamination episode which occurred in some parts of Italy According to reports, the food safety authorities in northern Italy seized a batch of 70,000 mozzarella that turned blue once they were removed from their packs, triggering emergency control measures by them. The particular cheese, was imported from Germany for an Italian distribution company that sold it to discount supermarkets in the north of the country. The much vaunted European "rapid alert" system was launched informing all concerned about the the contamination. What is interesting is that it was left to an alert consumer to inform the authorities by sending images from her mobile phone of the soft, white cheese immediately turning blue once it came into contact with air and action was promptly taken to take off the affected cheese from the shelves to prevent any untoward incidence of food poisoning. Though initial assessment indicated it to be bacterial rather than toxic contamination, the incidence has baffled many experts calling for further investigation about the cause. The possibility of the blue color development due to presence of copper, nickel or lead in the milk or the aqueous solution used to preserve the cheese was not ruled out. As no consumer reported falling sick due to consumption of this "blue" cheese, the incidence did not create any serious consumer backlash though more vigilance is being advocated for cross country food trade.

The above piece of news is remarkable viewed from three angles. First it reflects the keen sense of consumer vigilance and responsibility as the abnormality in the cheese was noted first by a consumer who alerted the concerned authorities through a mobile phone where after the decision for recall was taken as a precaution. Second the excellent rapid alert system that operates in the EU for meeting such contingencies. Last, it speaks volume about the commitment to safety by the industry as exemplified by the prompt and voluntary decision by the distributor to recall all the products from the retail shelves with minimum loss of time. All the three stake holders in the safety assurance frame work, consumer, authorities and the industry deserve kudos for their role in tackling this unfortunate incidence with damage to none.


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