- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

Frozen pizza is big business.

The average American eats most of his or her meals at home, and many time-pressed consumers want meals that are quick and convenient.

As a result, the frozen pizza industry has really been cooking. Supermarket sales have increased more than 60 percent during the past five years, with 2006 sales topping $3.3 billion, officials from the National Frozen Pizza Institute said.

“The industry has had unprecedented growth,” said Mark Jansen, president of the National Frozen Pizza Institute and vice president of product strategy at Schwan’s Consumer Brands, in Marshall, Minn. Schwan’s produces popular names such as Red Baron, Freschetta and Tony’s frozen pizzas. “We’ve pumped up a lot of our innovation, and we are headed back to a 5 percent growth rate.”

The National Frozen Pizza Institute lobbies from McLean for its 20 members, which include the makers of Celeste, DiGiorno and Tombstone pizza, to ensure that the Department of Agriculture doesn’t leave them out in the cold.

The USDA is in charge of inspecting frozen pizzas and sets labeling standards to guarantee that the pepperoni pizza you bought actually has pepperoni on it. But sometimes strict regulations can hurt the quality of frozen pizzas, and that’s where the National Frozen Pizza Institute steps in.

For example, one former USDA standard specified there should be at least 12 percent cooked meat or 15 percent raw meat on a frozen pizza for it to be called a “meat pizza.”

In 1999, the National Frozen Pizza Institute asked the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service to reduce its regulations on meat content, arguing that restaurant pizzas had less stringent regulations.

“They were handcuffed from an economic standpoint and from a nutritional standpoint,” said Rick Frank, a senior policy attorney at Olsson, Frank & Weeda P.C., a Washington law firm that represents the pizza group.

The USDA relented and changed its standard in 2003 to let frozen pizza companies sell their pizzas with a minimum meat content of 2 percent cooked or 3 percent raw meat.

It was a big victory for the industry, said Mr. Frank, because “the decision has led to more variety and greater choices for the consumer.”

This is important, because consumers are demanding better ingredients and more interesting or diverse flavors, said officials from the organization.

Some frozen pizza companies have begun offering organic pizzas and restaurant-inspired pies such as those from California Pizza Kitchen to keep up with consumer demand.

“The quality of the pizza has been upgraded,” said Giacomo Fallucca, a former president of the group. “From a consumer standpoint, the quality of frozen pizza has risen considerably.”

Mr. Fallucca’s father emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, in the 1950s and founded a small Italian bakery called Palermo Villa in Milwaukee using recipes he carried with him in his suitcase.

Today, Mr. Fallucca uses his father’s recipes to sell and ship Palermo’s frozen pizzas all over the nation.

“There is no doubt I would rather be in the [frozen food] industry rather than the restaurant business,” said Mr. Fallucca. “We can be innovative; I personally walk the floor and taste the ingredients myself.”

Palermo Villa is in a trademark dispute with Trader Joe’s Co. Inc. over Trader Joe’s labeling of a pizza called “Trader Giotto’s Pizza Palermo.”

Palermo Villa said the name is confusing to consumers who may think that the Trader Joe’s pizza is made by Palermo Villa.

Attorneys from Trader Joe’s said the company named its pizza “Palermo” to describe the style of pizza made in the Italian city, not the maker of the pizza.

The National Frozen Pizza Institute has supported its members in disputes like this before.

They want to make sure consumers won’t be fooled, said Mr. Frank, who recalled a memorable dispute the frozen pizza industry had in the early 1980s.

“Back then, dairy cheese was twice the price of nondairy cheese,” Mr. Frank said. “That made it hard to sell a $1 pizza.”

To compensate, frozen pizza companies began using non-dairy cheese, much to the chagrin of the dairy industry, which then insisted the USDA force the pizza companies to label their products as having “nondairy cheese.”

The debate made it all the way to Capitol Hill and was inserted into an appropriations bill for the USDA, Mr. Frank said.

“The bill passed in one chamber of Congress but froze up in the other,” Mr. Frank said.

“It wasn’t the world’s most earth-shattering issue,” Mr. Frank admitted. “Congress had better things to debate.”

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