Mid-summer tomato news

Aug 25, 2008

Who could resist tomatoes in mid-summer? Roadside stands around town (at least in Fresno) offer the beautiful, healthful, locally grown fruit for the best prices you'll see all year.

Apparently, media are also seeing red. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a lengthy piece over the weekend about processing tomatoes, fruit carefully bred for high soluble solids and portability that is transformed into spaghetti and pizza sauces, tomato paste, soup and other products. Of the 12.7 million tons of processing tomatoes grown in the United States, 95 percent come from California, the story says.

Drilling down further, the article reports that just 225 growers in the Central Valley produce California's entire crop on 277,000 acres. Most grow their crop under contract for one of California's 16 commercial tomato canneries.

For the story, freelance writer Deborah Rich spoke to the director of UC Cooperative Extension in Colusa County, Mike Murray. He said that, in his county, only eight farmers grow a total of 25,000 acres of tomatoes; before 1979 the county had at least 50 processing-tomato growers.

"The industry has evolved that way," Murray is quoted in the story. "The only way that these guys are making any money on tomatoes is by volume. Processed tomatoes are basically a commodity."

Fresh tomato safety made a big splash in the media this summer when it was first alleged that the verastile fruit was responsible for a string of salmonella poisonings around the nation. Even People Magazine included an article. In its July 21 issue, UC Davis food safety specialist James Gorny commented on the challenges associated with finding a culprit for some food poisoning outbreaks.

"Tomatoes from different farms are often mixed together and follow a complex distribution chain before they hit grocery store shelves or arrive at a restaurant," the magazine said. Then it quoted Gorny: "It becomes very difficult to find your smoking gun."

ANR wasn't involved in this last story, but since we're talking about tomatoes . . . US News & World Report ran an article about research done by our colleagues at Ohio State that confirmed high-heat processing of tomatoes changes the molecular structure of lycopene, making it easier for the healthful antioxidant to be absorbed into the blood stream. A naturally occurring red pigment, lycopene is believed to help prevent cancer and other chronic diseases.

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By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist