Requiem for Pizzas

Feb. 15, 2022

How is it possible for an originator of food poisoning to become a sympathetic figure?

How is it possible for an originator of food poisoning to become a sympathetic figure?

When he promptly, fully acknowledges the situation and makes amends. Oh, and it helps if the problem isn’t really his fault.

That’s the lesson I take away from a nearly half-century old case in Michigan that involved the public burial of 30,000 pizzas.

After immigrating to Michigan from Italy after World War II, Mario Fabbrini adapted his family pizza recipe (“the pizza from my country no one here would eat,” he said in an interview) and built it into Papa Fabbrini’s Frozen Pizzas. According to a fascinating article in Atlas Obscura, Fabbrini “was churning out tens of thousands of pies per week, with the help of 22 full-time employees and a state-of-the-art factory.”

Then came disaster. His supplier discovered botulism poisoning in its cans of mushrooms and notified the FDA, which passed the warning on to the supplier’s customers, including Fabbrini. Samples of his mushroom pizza in an FDA lab killed a couple of laboratory mice, and the recall was on.

After rounding up all the sold product he could get his hands on, Fabbrini decided to dispose of it, about 30,000 pies, in the most high-profile way possible: a public funeral. He had a farmer in Ossineke, Mich., dig a pit, to which truck after truck pulled up to dump its load. The “funeral” was covered by local media and attended by William Milliken, the then-governor, and “dozens of community leaders,” according to the Atlas Obscura article. Attendees were served a slice of pizza, presumably without mushrooms.

Fabbrini comes off as a smart and sympathetic character. He obviously had strong ties to the community, which served him in good stead in his moment of crisis. It’s worth remembering that being a good neighbor, no matter how big you are or become, is smart policy that has value besides a feel-good page in the annual report.

The kicker: After further investigation, the FDA determined that the pizza wasn’t what killed those lab mice after all. “Maybe they didn’t like my pizza,” Fabbrini blandly told a reporter.