ROME -- Italian police say they have dismantled a macrobiotic "sect" that denied its followers contact with the outside world. Authorities told reporters Wednesday that followers were manipulated to adhere to a rigidly controlled diet known as "Ma-Pi," and that the weight of one follower plunged to 35 kilos (77 pounds).
Five persons have been formally put under investigation for alleged maltreatment, tax evasion and criminal organization with the aim of reducing people to slavery.
The Guardian reports 73-year-old Mario Pianesi and his wife, Loredana Volpi, are suspected of being the ringleaders of the network, which operated in the central Marche and Emilia Romagna regions of Italy.
Police said the probe began in 2013 after a young woman told police the group's head, a macrobiotic business entrepreneur, promised the diet would provide miracle cures.
Authorities said the sect manipulated followers into giving donations and working practically for free.
"I've never come across a case like it in my life," Ancona police chief Carlo Pinto told The Guardian. "These were people suffering from physical or mental illnesses. They were convinced that the diet did them good and in return they offered to help the macrobiotic food chain, working for free and effectively sacrificing their own life."