|UglyRipes prevail in tomato growers spat |
Friday, January 19, 2007 10:52:47 PM
It's the Rocky of tomatoes, lumpy but loved by fans.
But consumers clamoring for juicy UglyRipe tomatoes this time of year have trouble finding them because of an industry pact that largely bans their sale outside of Florida.
Sunshine State growers say the rule ensures that Florida tomatoes – the only state where winter tomatoes are grown commercially in the U.S. – are sufficiently round and smooth.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted Philadelphia-based Procacci Brothers a waiver from the rule, which will put more of the weirdly bulbous fruit on store shelves.
"When it comes to a product as innocuous as a tomato, it's a no-brainer – let the consumer decide!" ardent fan Dan Wire of Reading, Pa., wrote to the agency during last year's public comment period.
The pleas came from dozens of UglyRipe supporters ranging from a Wal-Mart produce manager to a winter-weary Ohio woman to a Plutarch scholar at Brown University.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said a waiver would give Procacci Brothers an unfair advantage. Other firms have to meet size and shape standards set by the Florida Tomato Committee to sell the typically hard, round winter tomatoes known as Florida Rounds outside the state from mid-October to mid-June.
"Every grower has some percentage of its crop that is flat, elongated, ridged etc., yet they are still required to adhere to the minimum grade requirements," Bush wrote in his August letter to the USDA.
Reginald L. Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, objected in a 26-page letter.
The marketing rules are designed "to assure that during Florida's growing season, wherever you buy a tomato in this country you always get a consistent product that is of the highest quality," he wrote. Brown did not return a phone message Friday from The Associated Press.
Joe Procacci said he spent 20 years and $3 million developing the hybrid UglyRipe to meet consumer demand. He grew the first 100-acre crop in Florida in 1999.
"We've been in the tomato business around 50 years," said Procacci, 79, who started peddling produce with his father and brothers when he was 8 years old. "All we heard from consumers was the (winter) tomatoes taste like cardboard."
His company, which introduced grape tomatoes to much of the U.S., is perhaps the largest seller of Florida Rounds, with 8 percent of the U.S. market, he said. The Subway sandwich chain is his top customer.
But if the machine-picked and -packed Florida Rounds serve one market, a growing number of consumers want other options, and are willing to pay for them, Procacci said.
The UglyRipe, which has to be picked and packed by hand, typically sells for $3 to $4 a pound, but can go up to $7 in some grocers.
The Florida Tomato Committee allowed Procacci's Santa Sweets division to sell UglyRipes from 1999 to 2002, when it was considered a new product in search of a market. But as demand grew, and Procacci increased his acreage, the board reversed course.
In 2003, with 700 acres of UglyRipe seeds already in the ground, the board said he would have to start meeting the Florida Round standard.
While perhaps a fifth passed muster, Procacci had to dump most of the crop. Some of it was fed to cows. He lost $3 million.
"I guess the cattle were eating better tomatoes than humans," he said.
Procacci's lawyer ultimately appealed to the Agriculture Department under a new program that allows waivers for premium specimens with unique DNA structures.
On Jan. 12 – shortly after Bush left office, Procacci notes – the agency granted the petition.
The UglyRipe became the first product registered in the department's Identity Preservation Program.
"I think it's going to grow to be a large part of our business. Consumers want taste. Once they taste something good, they'll keep buying it," Procacci said.
On the Net:
Santa Sweets: santasweets.com
Florida Tomato Committee: floridatomatoes.org