After 83 buffalo dairy providers from the Campania region of Italy were suspended after high levels of the toxicant class, dioxins were found in mozzarella made from their milk, two unlikely industries found themselves in the hot seat: independent farmers and traditional cheesemakers.
We often think of small farmers and food artisans as immune to the undignified fallout of mechanized food production. Instead, our romanticized view imagines century’s old techniques, the pure ingredients of yesteryear and a complete unfamiliarity with chemical additives. But there is a danger to thinking that traditional food production exists in a vacuum.
Dioxins are pervasive toxicants that are emitted through the processes of several industries, though primarily through garbage incineration, oil refining, paper mills and metal smelters. The plain fact is, we all breath in dioxins and they stay in our body, dormant in our fatty tissue. This storage really doesn’t pose a problem (at least none that has been recorded), but we do get a harmful amount of dioxins from eating the fatty tissue of other animals. Buffalo milk, used for its silken, rich texture is particularly fatty. Couple this with a major garbage disposal problem in Campania and you’ve got one toxic piece of formaggio.
Dioxins are hormone-mimickers. They enter healthy cells, attach to their receptors and infiltrate the cell’s chromosomes where they can access the genetic makeup of the cell. In doing this, dioxins convert any type of cell to genetically resemble a hormonal cell. With an imbalance of hormonal cells, the endocrine system can malfunction, causing endocrine cancers like breast, testicular and uterine cancer.
Studies also suggest that dioxins are partially responsible for the growing gender imbalance in the global birthrate. A study from the IntrAmericas Centre of Environment and Health in Ontario found that the established sex ratio of 103:100 males to females born turned into the very skewed 46:54 in communities with dioxin emitters up to 25 kilometers away. These dioxin emitters were disproportionately urban and medical waste incinerating facilities. This is a problem as boys are more vulnerable than girls to accidental death. So much so, that by adolescence, the natural 103:100 ratio evens out to 100:100.
What makes dioxins so scary is not their cancer causing properties, their cellular invasion or their effect on gender imbalance. Instead, what I find terrifying is the complete lack of control I have over my consumption of them. A person can eat (as I do) only organic, free-range meat; only the freshest, most local and non-toxic yogurt on the market. Heck, we can even grow our own chickens. But protection from dioxins can not be achieved by making good food choices. We need to enact large-scale legislation to eliminate dioxins at the source by using fewer non-biodegradable materials of the sort that need incinerating and by eliminating paper, metal and oil industry practices that emit toxicants in such high numbers. We need to ask for regular atmospheric, soil and animal testing for dioxins. What else can we do? No meal is an island.
(Photo courtesy of pdphoto.org)