Ag Today January 26, 2017

Tomato canners seek new routes to consumers

BY JOHN HOLLAND jholland@modbee.com

Shoppers would start to find canned tomatoes in the produce aisle if an idea discussed Wednesday in Modesto catches on.

The California Tomato Growers Association, which promotes canned rather than the fresh-market crop, provided an update on its continuing campaign to show that its products are just as good.

The group notes that the crop is picked at the peak of ripeness – unlike “fresh” tomatoes that often are harvested while still green – and that the canning process seals in flavor and nutrients.

Getting out of the canned-food aisle and into the produce department is one of the 2017 goals of the Tomato Products Wellness Council, a related industry group.

“It’s a little bit of a radical idea for the grocery managers we have spoken with so far,” said Alec Wasson, whose business card reads “chief tomato evangelist” for the council. He spoke at the 70th annual meeting of the growers group at the DoubleTree Hotel.

The canneries are a key part of agriculture in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, employing several thousand people each summer and early fall. They make paste, sauce, diced tomatoes and other basic items that are sold to consumers and to makers of pizza, salsa, ketchup, soup and much more.

Wasson told of research showing that canned tomatoes can protect people against cancer, heart trouble, obesity and even depression. He noted that one cancer fighter, lycopene, is enhanced by the canning process.

The council has used Facebook, Twitter and other social media to share the health news and recipes. It has worked to get canned tomatoes into school cafeterias. And it went to Las Vegas for the International Pizza Expo, where some of the talk was about emphasizing sauce over crust and cheese.

“(Consumers) want to know that they can still enjoy pizza but it also can be healthy,” Wasson said.

The state’s canning tomato growers expect to produce about 11.6 million tons this year, according to a preseason survey by the U.S. Agriculture Department. That is down from 12.6 million tons last year and the record 14.4 million in 2015.

That will help shrink the global surplus of processed tomatoes, said Mike Montna, president and chief executive officer at the Sacramento-based growers association. He added that exports have slowed with the rising value of the U.S. dollar against other currencies.

The group also is working against tariffs on California tomatoes in other nations. It had a setback with President Donald Trump’s withdrawal Monday from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement covering about 40 percent of world trade.

The meeting also included an update on various issues from Paul Wenger, a Modesto-area nut grower and president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. He noted the pending increases in the minimum wage, urban misconceptions about farm water use, and other burdens on agriculture.

He ended on an upbeat note.

“Ninety-five percent of all processed tomato products originate on farms in California,” Wenger said. “That makes me proud, even though I am not a tomato farmer.”