When Is Pizza Not Pizza? The Usda Tomato-sauce Rule Gives New Meaning To Red Tape, The Wolfgang Puck Food Co. Finds While Trying To Market Its Pies

Posted: January 17, 1988

What happens when haute cuisine meets government bureaucracy?

Just ask the people at Wolfgang Puck Food Co. in Santa Monica, Calif., which last month introduced Spago's Original California Pizza. The pizzas are frozen versions of the entrees made popular at Spago, Puck's internationally recognized West Hollywood restaurant and a favorite hangout for celebrities and film-industry types.

During an interview last month, Puck offered a sneak preview of the pizzas that have just begun appearing in stores around the country. (In Philadelphia, the pizzas are expected to be available soon at Thriftway Markets.) If Puck seemed proud of his new product, that's at least partly because he believes it's like no other frozen pizza on the market.

The U.S. Agriculture Department thinks so, too. In fact, the USDA doesn't even think it is pizza. And that's where the Wolfgang Puck Food Co. ran into trouble.

As Robert Koblin, president and chief executive officer of Wolfgang Puck Food, tells it, the problems started when a prototype of the pizza box was

sent to the USDA for approval in September. The department sees to it that what's written on the box describes what's in the box. It acts as a watchdog, if you will, on behalf of truth-in-labeling regulations.

Koblin says the USDA was quite helpful at first, offering suggestions on the design of the label, for example, and the fledgling company appreciated this. The company found out that certain words needed to be more prominently placed than others. Some needed to be in larger type. Koblin was happy to make the changes to comply with the law.

Then, the USDA asked him to remove one word from the box.

The word was "pizza."

Koblin said he was told the product did not meet the criteria for a pizza. ''I thought to myself, 'It's round, it's got dough, cheese and some other toppings. It sounds like a pizza,' " he said. What's more, many influential people came to Spago every night and ordered this food. "They thought they were eating pizza," Koblin said. "I really thought (the USDA was) kidding."

The government never kids.

Koblin was told that in order to be a pizza, the product had to have a tomato sauce. Puck's pizzas, however, feature a pesto sauce.

Koblin grabbed his Webster's and looked up the definition of "pizza." The description began, "A thin rolled dough with a spicy sauce, cheese and other toppings . . ."

But the government does not consult Webster's for its guidelines. It consults a regulation book. And in this case, regulation 319.00 says that a pizza has to have tomato sauce.

Koblin asked who the regulators were who came up with the rules for pizza. No one knew. He told the USDA that 80 percent of the pizzas eaten in the world were made without tomato sauce. The USDA wasn't concerned with the pizzas of the world, only with the pizzas of the United States.

When the government wouldn't back down, Koblin asked how much tomato sauce Puck's company would have to add to meet the regulation. Fifty percent of the sauce must be a tomato sauce, he was told.

ON TO WASHINGTON

This was unacceptable. Wolfgang Puck believed that adding tomato sauce would alter the taste of his pizza too much. "How dare some bureaucrat tell me how to make a pizza!" was his reaction. Koblin, who had been arguing Puck's case via telephone, decided to get to Washington right away.

There was more in-person arguing before a compromise was reached. Spago Original California Pizzas now contain diced tomatoes marinated in the pesto sauce. The tomatoes represent half the weight of the pesto sauce.

So now production of the pizzas could begin, right?

Wrong.

There was one other matter to clear up, the USDA said. That was the matter of the term "country sausage" on one of the pizzas.

Koblin was told that that wording could not be used.

"Why not?" he asked.

"Well, where is it made?" the "Committee to Prevent Unsafe Pizzas" asked.

"It's manufactured in City of Industry (in California)," Koblin replied.

"Then you can call it 'City of Industry sausage,' " he was told.

Koblin told the USDA that the recipe for the sausage was one that Wolfgang Puck had been making for years. It has always been called "country sausage"

because it has a country taste to it.

SERIOUS ABOUT SAUSAGE

The committee told him that in order for it to be called "country sausage," it had to be made in the country. That means there had to be trees and grass all around. The USDA was serious. Remember, the government doesn't kid.

Robert Koblin is a soft-spoken man. He is a former attending physician at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Over the years, he has learned how to deal with people in a fair and diplomatic manner. But now he was starting to lose his cool.

He pointed out that his company's new product was one of the only pizzas on the market that contained no chemicals. Many of the top-selling frozen pizzas are made with a cheese substitute, and yet the labels say "cheese pizza." He told the officials that they should be supporting Puck's efforts rather than obstructing them.

The Committee to Prevent Unsafe Pizzas answered that it was interested only in telling the truth.

"Does German potato salad have to be made in Germany?" Koblin countered. ''Does French bread have to come from France? Danish pastry from Denmark?"

The officials weren't concerned about those items. They were the pizza committee. And they represented the government.

When you go to the store to look for Puck's new pizzas, you'll find, along with the four-cheese and spicy chicken varieties, a sausage and herb version. Note that the word "country" is missing.

A DIFFERENT TASTE

The flavor, however, is all there, as tasters noted during a recent reception in Phoenix for Puck and his new product.

Several tasters commented that the product didn't taste like typical pizza. (Maybe the USDA was right.) When asked what they meant, the tasters said that the blend of spices was not heavy with fennel and oregano, as it is in some pizzas. Some also said it was apparent that the cheese was fresh.

Fontina and mozzarella cheeses are contained in all three varieties. On the four-cheese pizza, Parmesan and goat cheeses are added.

All three types of topping sit on what is essentially the same sourdough- and-honey crust, which is more breadlike than most ordinary pizza crusts. The thing missing here is that cardboard quality you've come to expect from frozen pizzas.

The pizzas carry a suggested retail price of about $7, considerably more than the typical frozen pizza. However, a spokeswoman for the Puck company says that the other frozen pizzas aren't considered the competition. Puck is going after the home-delivery business - even from across the country - through a toll-free number (800-453-1900), although it won't be quite as fast as pizza from your neighborhood haunt. These are shipped, packed in dry ice, and must be ordered 10 to 14 days in advance.

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