Italian police on Tuesday arrested the head of the biggest buffalo mozzarella maker in the country and seized assets worth 100 million euros (US$123 million) on suspicion of links to organized crime.
Police said Giuseppe Mandara — who once called himself the “Armani of mozzarella” — and his Mandara Group were controlled by the notorious Casalesi clan of the Camorra mafia based in and around the city of Naples.
Mandara Group is also a major global exporter of buffalo mozzarella and its products are sold by large chains in Europe, Japan and the US.
Mandara and three associates have been arrested, police said. In police photos, Mandara was seen being led away with a cigar in his mouth.
Investigators said he had received a bailout from the mafia when he was in financial trouble in the 1980s and this had helped boost his business.
The buffalo mozzarella consortium, which brings together all the top producers of the delicacy, expelled Mandara Group from its membership within hours of the arrest and said it would be a plaintiff in any trial.
“We are surprised and incredulous of course, but also conscious of the need for a strong sense of responsibility,” said Antonio Lucisano, director of the consortium based in the city of Caserta near Naples.
Lucisano said the consortium had adopted a code of ethics last month to try and keep the mafia out and said the inquiry would “not be good” for the sector.
“[However], we have an extraordinary product. The whole world envies us because of it. We have weathered even worse storms than this one,” Lucisano said.
The investigation includes charges of misleading consumers after the company was found to have mixed in cow milk with more expensive buffalo milk and labeled batches of ordinary provolone cheese as a more prestigious kind.
Another charge is for trading in noxious substances after it was found that up to 2 tonnes of buffalo mozzarella, which has already been taken off the market, may have been contaminated with ceramic residue from a broken machine.
“We have seized the whole company,” said Paolo Di Napoli, an officer from the environmental protection arm of the Carabinieri police.
Alival Group, which is a junior partner in the Mandara Group, declined to comment on the investigation.
Alival Group’s Web site said Mandara was a third-generation family business and the country’s top producer of buffalo mozzarella.
In an interview with business Web site denaro.it in 2010, Mandara said he produced 78,000 cheeses a day and employed 180 people.
Italian media reports said the Mandara Group produced 2 tonnes of buffalo mozzarella a day for the Italian and international markets.
Buffalo mozzarella sells in Italy for about 12 euros a kilogram and it can cost more than twice as much abroad.