UglyRipe Tomatoes Now Available
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 23, 2007
The Pundit has been writing about the saga regarding the UglyRipe brand tomato for over two years now. For example, in November of 2004, in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, we wrote:
A look at the UglyRipe makes it clear that the notion of cosmetic standards — the only criteria for grading tomatoes — is inapplicable to the UglyRipe. A top quality UglyRipe, one that should be classified a Number 1 UglyRipe, is doomed to grade, at best, as a Number 2 round tomato. This is no more sensible than it would be to demand Roma tomatoes meet that standard.
This is obvious to every retailer I’ve spoken to, so why doesn’t the Florida Tomato Committee accept that UglyRipe tomatoes are distinct from gassed-green round tomatoes and give them an exemption such as Roma tomatoes and cherry tomatoes have?
Now comes word that the UglyRipe is to be available year round:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has intervened in the national debate over the UglyRipe® tomato, freeing the heirloom beefsteak variety tomato from the shape restrictions imposed by the Florida Tomato Committee (FTC).
The tomato’s developer, Joe Procacci, had been at odds over the tomato with the FTC, a group of competing growers sanctioned by federal law. The FTC is empowered to determine all size and shape standards for tomatoes entering the U.S. market from mid-October to mid-June, the time of year when many Americans claim they’re unable to find a tasty tomato.
For the last three years, the FTC has found that the UglyRipe does not meet its rigorous standards, which are based on size and shape, but not taste. The FTC rejection meant that the tomatoes were prohibited for sale outside of the Florida growing region during the winter months.
The new USDA rule, published in today’s Federal Register, amends the Florida Tomato Marketing Order to exempt the UglyRipe from the shape portion of the USDA grade standards as long as the UglyRipe is grown, packed, and distributed under USDA’s Identity Preservation Program (IPP). The IPP uses the unique genetic fingerprint of a produce variety to assure that it is in fact the product claimed by its grower. The UglyRipe will still have to meet all of the other grade standards imposed under the marketing order.
The industry owes a big debt to Joe Procacci, not only for developing a tomato that addresses consumer complaints about tasteless fruit but for having the intestinal fortitude to stand up to a mostly very status quo-oriented industry. Joe Procacci is a living reminder that men are not meat… the more you pound them, the tougher they get.
Take a look at some of the comments the USDA received on this issue right here. You will find consumers praising the product and many retailers:
The Pundit also thinks a tip of the hat is due to Robert Jay Taylor of Taylor & Fulton, who spoke up on behalf of the consumer and a progressive industry:
I wanted to write today in support of the proposed partial exemption. I am a member of the board of the Florida Tomato Committee and have been for many years. The UglyRipe is a new and innovative product that should be available to the consumer.
You can find comments from other tomato growers, the Florida Tomato Committee and other Florida officials all calling for the UglyRipe to be subject to the same cosmetic standards as other tomatoes. There are countless pages to read but the argument really boils down to an assertion that there is a legitimate governmental function served by allowing growers to restrict competition.<
With a plethora of new proprietary produce varieties in the future, it was obvious to the Pundit even two years ago that the system of allowing growers to restrict competition couldn’t stand:
“… the UglyRipe is closer to the beginning than the end of proprietary produce. Next year someone else will have some other variety and soon we will have all kinds of genetically modified varieties, many proprietary to a particular shipper.
The real lesson here is that the Florida Tomato Committee has accepted a role as a protector of the profits of gassed-green round tomatoes. The UglyRipe story, however it pans out, is the beginning of the end for the political support of such a purpose. If these organizations are to continue, they will have to reorient themselves as agents for the consumer.
Right now the Vidalia onion industry is studying pyruvic acid levels and its use as a taste marker in sweet onions. The Florida Department of Citrus has restricted shipments based on brix levels. This means that the use of cosmetic standards as a convenient means of volume control are nearing an end. It is a sea change in the trade.&rdquo
It looks like the sea change may arrive via a new USDA Identity Preservation Program. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to speak with Joe Procacci about the program:
CEO of Procacci Brothers,
Q: How did you get an exemption from the minimum grade requirements under the marketing order for tomatoes grown in Florida to sell UglyRipe tomatoes outside the state?
A: It happened because of demand for the UglyRipes and because USDA set up the first-ever program where we could distinguish our tomatoes from any other tomatoes, and there wouldn’t be any misrepresentation.
USDA checks out where we get our seeds all the way through production to the end customer to verify it’s the tomato called UglyRipe. They can check our tomato through DNA testing.
Q: How costly is it to participate in the Identity Preservation Program?
A: We started working on this about a year and a half ago now, and the process is on-going and very expensive — $150,000 to $200,000 a year.
Q: The program seems ideally suited to specialty, proprietary products. Yet wouldn’t the cost factor limit some companies from participating?
A: I’m sure our competitors would jump on it if they had a product that could benefit from it. We are always looking to develop a better tasting tomato, and also new varieties to take to market. We have a research and development department where we employ four Ph.D.’s focused on this goal. Nearly 60 years in this business, I can still walk into the produce department and find tomatoes that taste like cardboard.
Q: What impact will the exemption have on total sales of UglyRipes?
A: We will be able to supply UglyRipe tomatoes coast to coast now in the winter time, which we weren’t able to do before. In the produce business it is pretty hard to be exact on sales estimates. We feel it will result in at least over 500 percent more business.
Q: Do you have any new marketing plans to capitalize on your newfound freedom to sell UglyRipes across the United States?
A: We’re considering marketing alternatives right now. One interesting direction we are exploring is the sale of UglyRipes over the Internet in online stores the way Harry & David’s sells pears. Restaurateurs and tomato aficionados will pay more to get product shipped to their door. The prospects are very promising. Currently, consumers could access this service through our Santa Sweets website.
A note from Geronimo Quinones, Marketing Specialist, USDA Ag Marketing Services, Fresh Products, Washington, D.C.:
Readers can access more information about the Identity Preservation Program by going to our website http://www.ams.usda.gov/fv/ipbv.htm. We’ve had some inquiries, but so far Santa Sweets is the first and only participant. UglyRipes weren’t able to meet the Florida marketing order with shape and smoothness requirements. The program allows us to positively identify these UglyRipe tomatoes so that imitations or fakes don’t fall through the cracks. The exemption was just approved on January 17. We expect more companies will use the program overtime.
One of the issues regarding the UglyRipe was how could Procacci make sure every tomato was an UglyRipe and not just a misshapen regular tomato. This program provides an answer. We can expect many items to benefit from a program that assures their true identity.