A pass over Sean Brauser's pizza menu serves as a clear reminder of where humans sit on food chain; meat toppings such as beef and pork sausage are ever-present. That his Butcher's Shop pizza is a big seller and two-time pizza contest winner is no accident, he said, because that's what his customers want.

"I tried to switch once putting crumbly sausage on the pizzas, and my customers had a revolt," said Brauser, owner of Romeo's Pizza in Medina, Ohio. "I had to go back to the money maker."

That means fresh, raw sausage on his pies. "We take a glob of sausage and pat it into a thin patty. We want people to see it."

Why raw? Like many pizza operators, Brauser believes raw sausage is more flavorful and "natural looking" than most fully cooked sausage toppings. When he sees sausage or beef pellets on a pizza, it turns him off. "I look at that and think, 'Man, I'm disappointed.'"

But some would say he could at least take solace in the fact that those toppings are arguably safer than toppings made from raw product. Toppings that arrive at the pizzeria fully cooked drastically reduce chances for food poisoning, cross contamination, spoilage, waste, etc., because of the well-monitored microbial massacre at the factory level.

"Part of our sales premise is the food safety of fully cooked meat," said Liz Hertz, marketing manager for Burke Corporation, a toppings manufacturer in Nevada, Iowa. For most of its history, the company manufactured raw toppings, but shifted to fully cooked toppings several years ago. "You talk to

Learn more about Pizza Toppings ...

... in PizzaMarketplace's Choosing the Right Toppings for Your Pizzeria guide.

some operators who insist that raw is the right way to go, and others who understand the risks of using raw meat and the advantages of fully cooked. It's a matter of preference, but it's hard to overlook the risks."

Somewhere in the between are operators like Don Bellis, co-owner of The Rock, Wood-Fired Pizza & Spirits in Auburn, Wash. He buys raw Italian sausage for his pizzas and pastas, but he pre-roasts every link in his pizzeria's brick oven. The quick caramelization adds a dash of flavor, but most importantly it lets customers see what they're getting.

"When they see us putting sausage on their pizza, they know it's not some processed rabbit (droppings), it's a real sausage," said Bellis, whose operation includes three restaurants. The pre-cooking contributes to safety as well, he added. "If we were topping with just raw product, I'd be concerned more about cross-contamination, like if they didn't wash their hands and then stretched another pizza."

Manufacturers straddle the fence as well, such as Fontanini Italian Meats in Chicago. The toppings and sandwich meats maker is perhaps best known in the pizza industry for its raw products, but "we make cooked and raw; if someone doesn't like one, we'll sell them the other," said company President Gene Fontanini. "It's really a matter of preference."

Handle with care

Most often, experts say, tainted food originates from bad sanitation practices at the restaurant level, not at factories where inspections are done more often, refrigeration temperatures are more consistent and inventory turnover is better managed.

The potential for mistreatment of raw product is high in a pizzeria, where refrigeration might not be carefully monitored or inventory is poorly managed. In the opinion of some, raw product is not for everyone.

"I would not recommend raw sausage for a really slow place," said "Big Dave" Ostrander, industry consultant and former pizzeria owner. "It's not going to move it fast enough to keep the integrity of that raw meat."

But even busy shops should be keenly aware of rotation practices, he added. "Put as little out at a time as you need to be sure you're keeping the rest ice cold. And because you've got to handle raw product to shape it, you've got to be diligent about hand washing."

Constant but necessary hand washing can be time-consuming and

start quoteWhen that little bit of the sausage grease gets into the pizza, it gives it more flavor, I think. But we use really high-quality toppings, so grease isn't a big issue.end quote

-- Sean Brauser, Romeo's Pizza

arguably difficult to do correctly as laid out by HACCP (hazard analysis, critical control point) guidelines. If an operator has any doubt, foodservice-grade plastic gloves are recommended.

In his decades supplying the restaurant industry, Fontanini said he's watched operators improve their sanitation practices through better education.

"With the (introduction of) HACCP and the fact that all the restaurateurs have to go to food safety classes, it's a lot different than it was 30 years ago," he said. "The average restaurateur is more versed in what causes cross-contamination. He knows how to handle meats and vegetables away from each other or on separate cutting boards. If they're responsible, it shouldn't really be a problem."

Responsible, Fontanini said, is the same as sensible. "If it's a really busy place, there's usually only one guy putting sausage or meats on pizzas" while others adding the other components to avoid cross-contamination. "In a smaller place where they volume might not be so great, it's best to have a sink close by where he can wash his hands regularly, or box of disposable gloves nearby. If he has to handle raw meat, he can slip on a pair of gloves, put it on, take the gloves off and keep making the pizza. ... But still, that's in a perfect world."

Brauser called using raw sausage worth the sanitation hassles. Every time a Romeo's pizza is cut after baking, an extra glance is taken to ensure the sausage is cooked through.

"We also make sure the sausage is the last topping put on the pizza," he said. "No matter what else goes on there, it's got to be on top so it cooks all the way through.

Bellis also bakes his pies with meat toppings above the cheese so customers can see the meat they're paying for. A large pizza gets a full link sliced, and a small gets a half link. "It looks good that way, and it also makes it simple for portion control."

Knowing some fully cooked meat toppings looked too processed, Hertz said Burke developed a hand-pinched line a few years ago to deliver a "more natural look. It has a craggy, irregular look, like it was applied to the pizza raw. Some pieces are larger than others, too, so they don't look so manufactured."

Many hardcore, raw-only pizza companies made the switch to fully cooked toppings with the hand-pinched line, she said. "We took the same formulation they wanted, added a different look and they wanted it."

Not only have users found the fully cooked toppings simpler to handle, she said, the reductions in labor cost and waste are added benefits.

"Some will look at the price of raw toppings and compare it to fully cooked and then say they can't afford it," Hertz said. "But when you look at things like shrinkage and waste once it's cooked down, plus the cost of labor, it could be less expensive to use a fully cooked product."

Above or below the cheese

With most meat toppings, grease run-off, to a small or large extent, is inevitable. With raw product especially, that run-off is always more pronounced.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing, said Brauser.

"When that little bit of the sausage grease gets into the pizza, it gives it more flavor, I think," he said. "But we use really high-quality toppings, so grease isn't a big issue."

Where many insist on putting sausage atop the cheese to encourage browning, Fontanini said many of his customers use the cheese as a protective barrier.

"Actually it tastes better under the cheese, and there's so little fat in it to start with," he said. "The moisture within the sausage blends into the pizza sauce and the steam cooks it under the cheese. It tastes way better that way."

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