Tomato growers hope for 'The Italian Enigma'

MODESTO, Calif. — California processing tomato growers hope "The Italian Enigma" can do for them what the "French Paradox" did for California red wine grape growers.

Thirteen years ago CBS’s 60 Minutes aired "The French Paradox," a report on medical studies that showed Frenchmen live longer and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans because they consume copious quantities of red wine. Within weeks of the program airing, red wine sales in the U.S. popped a cork, soaring 40 percent. Gallo put its leading brand, Hearty Burgundy, on allocation after the broadcast. Red wine sales for the year following the broadcast were up 39 percent.

The California Tomato Growers Association (CTGA) hopes The Italian Enigma will increase consumption of processed tomato products and jump start the state’s economically dismal California processing tomato industry that has some large growers planning an exit because profits are eroding from tomato production due to flat consumption.

The Italian Enigma is the moniker given to a medical study released about six months ago that said Italians who frequently eat pizza have reduced risk of heart attacks than those who do not.

The study done at a Milan hospital reported that eating one 7-ounce serving of pizza per week reduced the likelihood of having a heart attack by 38 percent, and eating two servings of pizza per week reduced the risk by 56 percent.

The study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that pizza ingredients, including tomato paste, can protect against heart disease.

The study was based on 507 cases aged 25 to 79 with a first episode of non-fatal acute heart attacks and 478 controls admitted for conditions unrelated to heart attack.

Pizza differences

However, Italian pizza is considerably different than American pizza. The Italian staple is made with a thin crust and a sprinkling of mozzarella cheese, and an entire pizza might provide 500 to 800 calories. The American standard pizza is a thick, doughy crust and piles of cheese containing as many as 2,000 calories. Nevertheless, there has been a study in the U.S. that the showed the same positive effect as the Italian study.

CTGA wants to transform itself from primarily a bargaining association to a promotional organization much like the Almond Board of California and promote processed tomato products as healthy food ingredients. It is either that or CTGA may go out of business because it is no longer effective as a bargaining association.

Demand is flat for California processing tomato products. Returns are dwindling for growers in a crop that is easily capable of producing more than 12 million tons or more annually with demand of only 10.5 million tons annually.

Ross Siragusa, the new CTGA president finishing up his first year, told the association’s annual meeting recently in Modesto, Calif., that two-thirds of the state’s tomato growers are not members of CTGA and are willing to take $50 per ton each year from processors. That has been the price for the past several years. This relegates CTGA’s bargaining position to being a price taker.

That price has many of the state’s most successful growers "pursing exit strategies which doesn’t bode well for the future health of the industry," added Siragusa.

Siragusa said the industry has done "an admirable job" of driving down costs, but "an abysmal job of holding on to the savings.

"Ten years ago processors and growers shared 62 percent of the total margin whereas we are now fighting over 31 percent," he explained.

‘Nutritional story’

Rather than haggle over price, CTGA wants to herald the "great nutritional story" of processing tomatoes and the lycopene they contain. If sales can be increased, profit margins should follow for growers and processors, CTGA contends.

"The industry has spent many years fighting over price and not promoting the overall consumption of processed tomatoes," said Siragusa. "If we are to survive we have to grow the overall market."

Lycopene is a pigment that gives tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables like pink grapefruit and watermelon, their red color. Lycopene is an antioxidant that has been linked to lowering the risk of atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, prostate cancer and cervical cancer. It also has been linked to improve bone and lung health. What makes the lycopene message particularly relevant to processing tomatoes is that lycopene content actually increases in tomatoes after they have been processed.

Roger Wasson, the man who played a key role in sharply increasing demand for U.S. pork industry and California almonds, told the CTGA gathering that processing tomato growers and processors have a an "opportunity" other commodities would cherish.

Wasson said California’s processing tomato industry has "a great word" to get out about the health aspects of processed tomatoes whether it be on pizza or in ketchup or any processed tomato product.

Wasson warned CTGA to expect opposition to promote tomatoes via a voluntarily or mandatory promotional effort. Wasson is now with the California Strawberry Commission after a decade with the Almond Board of California.

Change needed

"Be willing to make a difference. It takes guts to look in the mirror and something different must be done," said Wasson.

California is the largest processing tomato product producer in the nation. Ohio is the only other state with a processing tomato industry and its production is very small.

"California is basically the only place people can get a product that actually gets better (health wise) after processing," he said. "Tilt the demand curve enough and you can have an impact on price."

He related how the Almond Board of California, which has a current budget of $21 million annually, started promoting the healthful aspects of almonds with less than $2 million.

CTGA is using about $100,000 from a special promotion account to launch a promotional effort for processed tomatoes. It has started with a special Web site featuring celebrity chefs and public service announcements. CTGA is emphasizing that processing tomatoes are convenient to use; have special culinary value and are nutritional because of the lycopene factor.

Wasson said the almond industry started touting the health of eating almond with less information about the impact of eating almonds than processing tomato growers and canneries have about the health aspects of lycopene and processed tomatoes.

"Get everyone you can into the loop and get them to agree you can make a difference," said Wasson, who added many agriculture commodities would love to have a health message like processing tomatoes have.

Start promotion

"Get everyone to buy in — get started" with a voluntary promotional effort, even if it just a penny per ton, he added.

Timing for promoting the healthful aspect of processed tomatoes and lycopene could not be better, according to Clare Hasler from the new University of California, Davis Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.

Consumers are shopping for healthy biologically active components in food, like lycopene, which she called a "powerful antioxidant."

"People are going to the kitchen cabinet for medicine rather than the medicine cabinet," she told CTGA’s annual meeting. It has to do with the rising cost of health care. She said 68 percent of Americans in 2002 practiced self-treatment for ailments compared to just 31 percent in 1998. A significant part of that self-treating is eating more healthy foods.

Tomatoes, she said, have been identified as No. 1 on a list 10 "foods with wallop." Tomatoes rank ahead of spinach, nuts, broccoli, garlic, green tea, blueberries and red wine.

CTGA has started the ball rolling and its membership hopes there will be a profitable bowl of tomato sauce at the bottom of the hill.

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