Fifty years ago this March, dozens of people gathered in Osine, Michigan, for one of the strangest funerals in American history. They were there to witness the burial of nearly 30,000 frozen pizzas that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deemed inedible. The pizza was actually ok.
At the center of the “Great Pizza Funeral” was Mario Fabrini, an Italian immigrant who founded Papa Fabrini Pizza after settling in Michigan. In February 1973, Fabrini heard from FDA officials, who were issuing a mass recall of canned mushrooms after a suspected outbreak of botulism at a canning facility in Ohio. Fabrini submitted his pizza samples to the FDA for testing. After two rats died after eating samples of his pizza, Fabrini was ordered to recall thousands of pies.
On March 5, 1973, the “funeral” was how Fabrini disposed of the potentially tainted pizzas. Trucks dump pies into a giant ditch at a farm in Michigan. It was partly a slick PR stunt. The Associated Press covered it, and the funeral made the front page Detroit Free Press. It was a public display of responsibility during a botulism scare: Better to lose 30,000 pizzas than lose customers for the next year.
The funeral may seem like a jab at the FDA for mandating the recall in the first place. In the weeks leading up to the funeral, Fabrini was collecting thousands of mushroom-topped pizzas from stores and homes across Michigan before the FDA realized it had made a mistake. Lab rats that were fed Fabrini’s pizza died not from botulism, but from an unrelated infection.
“I think it was indigestion,” Fabbrini quipped to an AP reporter the day of the funeral. “Maybe they didn’t like my pizza.”
But having already proceeded with the recall, Fabrini had no choice but to destroy the pizza. Then the funeral, where he cooked other pizzas for hundreds of people, including then-Gov. William Milliken, who came out to witness the strange moment. After the pizzas were buried and the governor said a few words on the grave, Fabrini marked the grave with a wreath of red gladioli and white carnations – the color of pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese.
According to the AP, a reporter asked Fabrini about the safety of the pizza he was serving. “Gov. Milliken ate a piece,” he replied, “and he’s still alive.”
The recalled and destroyed pizzas cost Fabrini $60,000 in lost retail sales, according to a lawsuit he later filed against his mushroom suppliers. United Canning, the lead defendant in the case, used the fact that the FDA had misdiagnosed the initial disease to argue that Fabrini never demonstrated any defects in their products and voluntarily recalled its pizzas.
The withdrawal, of course, was voluntary in name only. The Michigan Court of Appeals noted in the final ruling in the case, “FDA representatives threatened to tell Fabrini’s customers to put the pizzas aside” and “radio stations were advising the public” that Papa Fabrini pizza was potentially unsafe to eat. Faced with that direct threat to the survival of his business, the court’s three-judge panel ruled, Fabrini had no choice but to recall the pizzas. Jurors confirmed the $211,000 settlement that a jury awarded to Fabrini.
Meanwhile, the FDA never had to pay anything. And Fabrini’s once-booming frozen pizza business faded. He sold the remaining assets in the early 1980s.
Botulism is no joke, and Fabrini was probably right to quickly recall the pizzas rather than risk a real funeral. But 50 years after its pies were buried in dirt on a Michigan farm, the Great Pizza funeral serves as a reminder that mistakes by public health officials can come with heavy costs.