Mafia baking poisonous bread in backstreet bakeries of Naples

Dough is mixed in filthy, humid and mould-streaked cellars, close to burning piles of toxic waste

Not satisfied with control of the drug trade, building industry and rubbish collection in Naples, the local mafia is getting into the bakery trade and ensuring that Neapolitans rely on the mob for their daily bread.

According to a report released last week, city officials and investigators suspect Camorra clans are behind many of the 1,400 unlicensed backstreet bakeries in and around the city which supply hundreds of street vendors who sell loaves out of car boots - and they may be spreading into selling other basic food products.

Open 24 hours a day, the street sellers are drawing shoppers with cheap, crusty bread fresh from wood-burning ovens, the way Neapolitans like it. But police say Naples' new breed of bakers are slowly poisoning their customers by burning old varnished wood, nut shells covered in pesticides and even planks pulled from exhumed coffins. 'Whoever buys this bread is eating dioxins and carcinogenic substances and putting their health at serious risk,' said Francesco Borrelli, assessor for agriculture for the province of Naples.

Borrelli's investigation into the underground bakeries prompted raids by Carabinieri police who found dough being mixed by illegal immigrant labour in filthy, humid and mould-streaked cellars, some perilously close to burning piles of toxic waste dumped in fields around Naples by the Camorra, which was linked earlier this year to suspected tainting of local mozzarella.

The capital for clandestine ovens is Afragola, a small town outside Naples where one of the Camorra clans operates. In addition to the town's 17 legal bakeries, 100 underground operations were discovered.

Across the province it is a business worth €600m a year, the bulk of which is controlled by mobsters, said Borrelli. Scores of bakeries have been shut down, but a report to the police by Borrelli's team last week revealed that owners are ripping off police seals and restarting operations. 'If you open one up, you need to talk to the clans first, and where there's easy money and illegal activity, the Camorra will want in,' added one investigator. Illegal bread-sellers redoubled their efforts over the August holiday period to take advantage of the closure of regular bakers. With illegal ovens accounting for almost half of the total around Naples, the city's honest bakers last year handed out 20,000 free loaves to try to win back customers.

But the mob is just getting started, said Borrelli. 'We believe the clans are now forcing legitimate middlemen to buy the bread and sell it on to food stores owned by the same clans, issuing regular receipts in the process and turning it into a handy money-laundering opportunity.' A quarter of Naples' 'illegal' bread was now being sold in shops, he added.

Green party politician Tommaso Pellegrino said the Camorra was giving jobs in its bakeries to mobsters just out of jail and in need of work.

Building on its bakery success, the Camorra is now branching out. 'Bread is the core business,' said Borrelli, 'but as food prices rise the mob is moving into fruit, vegetables and fish, all sold at low prices.' Whether it is strawberries grown on toxic waste dumps or bread baked in cancerous wood smoke, cut-price mafia food comes at a price, he said.


Tom Kington in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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