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:
I am the tomato buyer for BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc. BJ’s is a warehouse club operation similar to Costco and Sam’s. The consumer trend that we have noticed over the past couple of years has been towards a more taste-oriented tomato. We offer 11 different varieties of tomato SKUs for sale.
Sales of the traditional round greenhouse and field grown tomatoes have declined over the past couple of years while variety sales have increased tremendously. Sales of the UglyRipe tomato in particular have been very strong. Our customers are looking for that specific tomato and wish to purchase it year-round.
— Linda Kuchta
BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc.
I support giving an exemption to the Florida Tomato Commission rules that allow UglyRipe tomatoes to be marketed year round. They are a different tomato and shouldn’t fall victim to old rules for round tomatoes.
— Reggie Griffin
VP Produce & Floral
The Kroger Co
I am writing today to show my support and my company’s support in favor of the UglyRipe tomato’s exemption from the FTC rules. Please consider my request and its importance to making this specialty great-tasting tomato available to consumers outside of the state of Florida.
— Mark Malburg
Tomato Commodity Sales Manager
Blue Ash Service Center
On behalf of Schnuck Markets, a regional supermarket operator with 102 stores throughout the Midwest and Mid-South, I am writing to address an issue of interest and concern to our customers and company — namely, the “UglyRipe” tomato.
The UglyRipe tomato is an heirloom variety tomato. They look and taste like a homegrown tomato grown in your back yard. Our customers love them because they taste good. It is very difficult to find a tomato that tastes good at certain times of the year. The reason is that tomatoes do not hold up well when they travel from Florida, California etc., to St. Louis.
Joe Procacci, a produce pioneer, has developed this tomato that holds up and tastes good. It is grown in various regions but part of the season is grown in Florida. However, Florida agriculture will not allow it to leave the state because it is claimed to be “too wrinkled”. A Florida committee claims the tomato standards rule states that the UglyRipe must be as round as other Florida regular tomatoes before they can be shipped out of state. The round tomato is one that marks Florida’s good standard policy.
No. 1 tomatoes are firm, smooth-skinned, almost perfectly round.
No. 2 tomatoes are round, but only slightly rough.
No. 3 tomatoes are a bit misshapen and blemished.
We call these Florida tomatoes “cardboard” tomatoes. They look nice but have no flavor. I think this is a shame. It’s restraint of trade. Mr. Procacci grows a product that he should have the right to market wherever he wants to market them. Plus, our customers are not able to enjoy these tomatoes. The Florida Tomato Committee (FTC), which was established in 1955 under Federal Marketing Order No. 966, annually regulates the Florida fresh tomato industry South and East of the Suwannee River from October 15 through June 15. The Committee sets standards pertaining to the shape of round tomatoes that may be exported from Florida.
The UglyRipe has received an exemption from the grade standards during its first three seasons. However, the FTC has denied the exemption for the fourth season, saying the UglyRipe does not have the appropriate shape to meet the grade standards. The UglyRipes were prohibited from being shipped from Florida last winter and spring. We suffered a $2.8 million loss.
We feel it is a tremendous shame that The Florida Tomato Committee is preventing consumers nation wide from enjoying a tomato with a homegrown taste.
— Michael O’Brien
Schnuck Markets, Inc.
St. Louis, Missouri
This message is in regards to the Ugly[Ripe] Tomatoes that have developed a following in our marketing area from New Jersey through Virginia. These tomatoes are the closest substitution for the back yard home grown tomatoes we grow as children. Our customer base enjoys the flavor and the “home grown” look of these tomatoes.
Please allow this great tasting, good eating tomato to be shipped from Florida so we can enjoy this tomato year round.
— Rich Robbins
SUPERVALU Produce Sales Team
ShopRite Supermarkets supports the proposed rule change which would permit UglyRipe tomatoes to be shipped from Florida year round. This is an excellent product which should not be denied to our consumers by rules such as apply.
Availability of UglyRipes will be good for Shoprite Supermarkets, but more important, will satisfy our consumers/citizens.
— Frank Rostan
Senior Vice President
I am writing to express Publix Super Markets, Inc.’s strong support for the proposed partial exemption of UglyRipe tomatoes from the shape requirements of the federal marketing order covering tomatoes grown in Florida (Marketing Order No. 966).
As a Florida-based company that works hard to promote Florida products, we have always believed that these great tomatoes should be available to all of our customers in our 5 operating states. There is a proven consumer demand for the UglyRipe tomato based in large part on its rich, “homegrown” flavor. But the shape restrictions of the current marketing order make it almost impossible to ship enough of the product to meet our customers’ needs. As a simple matter of consumer choice, it is our belief that the UglyRipe should be available year-round.
We strongly encourage AMS to implement the proposed rule partially exempting UglyRipe tomatoes from the shape restrictions of the federal marketing order. Allowing this Florida product to be shipped out of our state year-round is ultimately good for all involved from farm to fork.
— S. Randy Roberts
Director of Government Relations
Publix, Lakeland, Florida
I would like to take the opportunity to offer my support for the proposed rules change to the federal marketing order that would exempt UglyRipe Tomatoes from the shape restriction that currently exists for shipping tomatoes out of the state of Florida between October and June.
I feel this is the appropriate action for a couple of reasons:
The first is that it’s been our experience that consumers are interested in purchasing this product on a year-round basis. Providing consumers with those choices are important, and this exemption will allow retailers to offer this choice year round.
The second reason is that we also feel it’s good for the state of Florida to be able to give consumers the opportunity to add to their choices to purchase other products produced in that state. And we feel that it in no way would compromise existing product that is currently being offered. The UglyRipe Tomato is a compliment to existing product, not a deterrent.
We encourage AMS to implement their proposed rule change and allow the UglyRipe Tomato to be exempt from the shape restriction, and allow this product to be shipped out of state on a year round basis.
— Bruce T. Peterson, Jr.
Senior Vice president, General Merchandise Manager
Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Arkansas
I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to comment on the year round availability of UglyRipe tomatoes for two years.
My name is Anthony Barbieri, and my position is the Director of Produce and Floral for Acme Markets, the leading retail chain in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Market.
We currently have 134 stores in 4 states, PA, NJ, DE and MD. The UglyRipe tomato has been tremendously received by our customers for one specific reason — TASTE.<
A loyal following has developed over the past few years, yet there is a MAJOR PROBLEM. We can’t sell the item during the winter months due to the fact the Florida Tomato Committee will not allow shipments out of the state. I have had to personally answer hundreds of customer complaints due to the unavailability, in addition to our store level personnel constantly fielding questions regarding why we don’t have the item in stock.
Quite frankly, the consuming public can’t understand the regulations regarding shape! Repeat purchases in our business are based on experience. The UglyRipe provides a terrific eating experience. In addition to being the Director of Produce at Acme Markets, I’m currently a member of the Board of Directors of the PMA (Produce Marketing Association).
What we at PMA are communicating to the industry is that future growth of produce consumption will be driven by taste. We must always strive to improve what we are delivering to the consuming public every day. By not allowing UglyRipes out of the state, the message going out by THE Leading Industry Association is being defeated.
I strongly urge you to bypass the shape regulation on UglyRipe Tomatoes and give the people what they want and deserve.
— Anthony Barbieri
Director of Produce and Floral
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.
The Florida grower has lost market share at retail for years and must innovate or go out of business. The great lengths that the AgMart people have gone to comply with all the concerns of their regulators/competitors on the committee is testament to their commitment to our industry and their desire to survive in a very competitive industry.
— Robert Jay Taylor
Taylor & Fulton, Inc.
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.