ROME (AFP) - Italy's leading agriculture industry association on Wednesday launched a drive to root out mafia infiltration which is costing the sector billions of euros.
"The agriculture and food sectors have become priority investment areas for organised crime groups," said Roberto Moncalvo, head of the Coldiretti association.
He called it "a strategic move in times of crisis because they have understood that, as bad as it gets, nobody can do without food." Coldiretti estimates mafia groups took in around 14 billion euros (S$25 billion) last year from agricultural rackets, an increase of 12 per cent from 2012.
According to the anti-mafia unit in Rome, around 15 per cent of turnover in the agriculture sector is linked to criminal activities.
Coldiretti said crime groups "control in many regions the distribution, and sometimes even production, of milk, meat, mozzarella, coffee, fruit and vegetables." They also run around 5,000 bars and restaurants - from pizzerias to ice-cream parlours - in Italy, mostly under dummy corporations.
The industry association said gangsters use extortion and intimidation to gain monopolies over products, force farmers to sell at low prices, as well as pressing businesses to buy their items and launder money.
Crime groups also tamper with ingredients and illegally butcher meat, it added.
Tampering with ingredients or swapping them for inferior ones in food then sold throughout Italy and Europe "seriously jeapordises the quality and security of products," said Coldiretti.
The association noted a 14-per cent increase in food safety alerts since the start of the economic crisis, to 534 warnings last year.
The initiative includes a group to help implement better monitoring of farm and food safety, as well as aid investigations into criminal infiltrations and contraband products.
Coldiretti said it would also produce a yearly "agromafia" report and collaborate with national and international anti-mafia organisations on breaking the grip of criminal groups on the agricultural sector.