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  • Safe Inside the Box

    Tags: Crime

Consider the typical pizza customer's experience.

He receives his pizza at the door and retreats to the couch, where he begins channel surfing with one hand and eating with the other. He stops at CNN, where an anchor is talking about bioterrorism and the safety of the nation's food supply. He continues surfing, only to stop on a channel showing a surveillance tape of a pizza delivery driver dropping a pizza out of the box and onto the ground. On the tape, the driver dusts off the pie and returns it to the box -- just before the customer opens the door.

Suddenly, he stops chewing, now wondering whether his pizza has endured similar treatment.

An impossible scenario? No. That surveillance tape was aired nationally on prime-time television earlier this year.

It's an unusual case to be sure, but it confirmed to millions of pizza customers watching the show that sloppy handling practices are not beyond the pale of reality.

Thinking Inside the Box

To address such potential problems, Dennis and William Moore designed a tamper-proof pizza box. The brothers, who live in LaGrange, Ky., received the patent for the box in 1999 not knowing how important the issue of food safety would become two years later.

"We think there was room for improvement long before September 11," said Dennis Moore. "It may force them now to look at it."

Patent 5,971,262, otherwise known as Signed, Sealed and Delivered, is designed to keep contaminants out, while still ventilating the pizza properly. The box looks like any other typical pizza delivery box, but there are no holes along the sides. The back wall of the box is angled out slightly which provides the ventilation for the pizza. To ensure that the box hasn't been opened before the customer receives it, the top panel of the box is taped shut with at least a one-inch-wide adhesive seal. A typical seal could be a computer-generated receipt or even coupons.

Sure, any pizza box can be sealed with tape, but the Moores say the ventilation holes along the sides of the typical container are just big enough for a straw -- the perfect contamination delivery device. Their box does not have such holes.

How much extra would this cost? The Moores claim it would be just a few more pennies and that existing box-cutting machines could be adapted easily by changing the cutting die.

"If one manufacturing company was to buy this, it may cost them maybe a penny more to manufacture with a little more paper," said William Moore. "But being able to standardize the tooling in the long run might make it even cheaper."

An executive from one international manufacturer said he'd had to see for himself. Bill Carr, the vice president of product development for Burrows Paper Corporation, which manufactures boxes for Pizza Hut, Domino's and other quick-service chains, said the box is an interesting concept. However, Carr would not divulge production costs.

"Certainly if it's something that we could offer to our customers for a nominal charge that they think they could use, we certainly would be interested in it," Carr said.

The interest in the box isn't something new. The Moores took their box to several pizza companies after they received the patent, but ran into roadblocks. No company wanted to buy the license, partly because, as the Moores acknowledge, pizza companies face a catch-22 in doing so.

"I think it scares them," William said. "It's a public image thing." If a pizza company rolls out its tamper-proof box, he said, customers might wonder if their pizzas have been tampered with in the past.

Since then, the brothers have held on to the patent and resumed their careers: William works at a Cincinnati manufacturing plant; Dennis is in the automobile business. They were at a loss as to what to do with the patent -- until this fall.

Five people have died from anthrax and 13 have been infected with the deadly bacteria. Concerns of further possible contamination have led many to consider the vulnerability of the nation's food supply.

In response, a Bioterrorism Preparedness Act is currently before Congress and several lawmakers are proposing legislation aimed at protecting America's food. The Food and Drug Administration has also formed the Food Security Alliance, a group charged with strengthening the physical security of industrial food production.

Pizza companies and food distributors are apparently aware of the concerns. Pizza Hut is taking extra safety precautions, but a spokesperson would not elaborate.

"We don't discuss our process so I can't comment on this," said spokesperson Julie Hildebrand. "The safety of our consumers and our employees is first priority, so we take these things into consideration."

Pizza Hut is not alone.

"Given the current state of world affairs, Domino's Pizza and all of its product suppliers, like most everyone in the restaurant industry, have heightened awareness around consumer concerns," said Holly Ryan, a Domino's spokesperson. "Our suppliers are world renowned for the quality and integrity of their products and make the safety of their products their top priority."

As for the integrity of the delivery process, Domino's is confident its product is safe.

"We are extremely focused on the caliber of people we hire, and are confident that the potential threat of product contamination due to tampering is almost zero given the quality control methods we employ in our system," Ryan said.

Just a Temporary Fix?

Even distributors acknowledge the heightened sensitivities to food safety. Carr admits that consumers would likely appreciate a tamper-proof box on a short-term basis, but he believes they are more concerned with how the pizza or other food product is made.

"I think there's a heightened awareness of any incidents of someone tampering with a product," Carr said. "But it's mostly just a heightened awareness in the production of the packaging, not the delivery of the product."

But would such a box be practical?

"Whether or not there's a need for it and since it appears to be cost effective, I think we would have to take a look at it and really evaluate it and see what the benefits are," Carr said.

The benefits are obvious, according to the Moore brothers.

"It's the next common sense approach," said Dennis Moore. "They go to all this trouble for quality. They should see that the quality gets right to the end user without any flaws and they can do that in a positive light."

With that in mind, the Moore brothers intend to retrace their steps and re-pitch their box to pizza companies. They're not looking to start up their own company with it, they want to sell the patent outright.

For how much? They won't say.

They spent roughly $3,000 in attorney fees for writing and obtaining the patent. However, they say they're wide open on the patent's potential sale price -- just not the buyer. Since putting their patented box to use has become more a mission to the Moores than a mere product sale, they'll insist the buyer actually will use the box and not just sit on the idea.

"It's something that needs to be done," said Dennis Moore.

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