"UglyRipe" tomato petition denied
The Florida Tomato Committee once again denied a petition that would have allowed interstate shipments of heirloom tomatoes that failed to meet the minimum quality standards established for Florida tomatoes.
Santa Sweet Inc., headquartered in Philadelphia and a subsidiary of the well known Philadelphia wholesaler and tomato distributor Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., had filed a petition for a "certificate of privilege" from the FTC on Nov. 10. Santa Sweet developed and is the sole grower and shipper of its proprietary "UglyRipe tomatoes. In the petition, it asked the committee to basically suspend quality standards for that variety for the remainder of the season.
With the petition denied, David Sheon, a spokesperson for Procacci Bros., said that the firm was contemplating its next course of action, but it would definitely continue the fight in an effort to market the fruit.
Part of the charm of the heirloom tomato is its imperfect shape and often rough exterior, hence its name "UglyRipe" tomatoes. But it is that same appearance and texture that make it more difficult for it to meet minimum standards than the traditional round tomato.
Led by Procacci Bros. CEO Joe Procacci, Santa Sweet has been arguing for this quality exemption for the past two years, often in the media. In fact, Mr. Procacci appeared on CNN's morning television show Jan. 4 explaining his company's point of view. Basically, Santa Sweet argues that the "UglyRipe" fruit might not look pretty, but it is better tasting than regular winter Florida tomatoes and consumers prefer it.
The vote on the petition took place by conference call on Wednesday, Jan. 5. FTC Manager Reggie Brown said that for the "certificate of privilege" to be granted, Santa Sweet needed a super-majority, or eight of the 12 possible votes. Three votes were cast in favor of the certificate, while eight opposed it.
"The committee has addressed this issue several times, and each time it has said the same thing, said Mr. Brown. "It is clear that the committee does not want to lower the grade standard.
While Mr. Procacci has been widely quoted as saying that the standard effectively prevents him from shipping "UglyRipe tomatoes outside the state, Mr. Brown said that Santa Sweet can adjust its packing standard to meet the minimum grade standards and ship the fruit. Mr. Procacci has said that the minimum grade standard results in throwing away tons of tomatoes. Mr. Brown countered that all tomato growers throw away sub-grade tomatoes at one time or another. He allowed that the "UglyRipe tomatoes would probably have a higher percentage of culls, but said that the industry is just not interested in sending U.S. No. 3s into the marketplace. "We stopped doing that 10 to 15 years ago.
Under the federal marketing order that governs Florida tomatoes, any tomato can be marketed within the state, but to be shipped and sold out of state, it must contain at least 90 percent U.S. No. 2s.
Mr. Sheon said that roughly 60 percent of the UglyRipe tomato variety is left in the field as it does not meet the firm's own packing standards. "If we were to pack the rest of the fruit under the current standards, we would ultimately lose eight tomatoes out of 10.
It was previously reported in The Produce News (Nov. 22, 2004) that Procacci Bros. had developed the UglyRipe tomato variety in the late 1990s and shipped it under an experimental use permit for three years. In September 2003, after considerable debate, the majority of the members of the Florida Tomato Committee voted against implementing a permanent change to the marketing order to allow the shipping of this fruit. Santa Sweet petitioned for an exception to that ruling last year, and it was denied. Apparently, the company planted the variety again this year with the intention to petition for an exception once again.
Though this year's petition did have some minor changes, Mr. Brown said that it was essentially the same petition as last year. He said that the vote this past week took place without discussion so he could not comment on the reasons behind the vote.
Mr. Brown agreed, however, that it was a fairly straight-forward petition, and the majority of the industry has shown thatit is not interested in having this fruit marketed.
Available year round, "UglyRipes" are grown in New Jersey and other Eastern growing regions during late spring and summer. Production has been designed to shift to Florida from November through June.
Mr. Brown said that Santa Sweet can pack the fruit to the normal standard and can still market off-grade fruit within Florida.
Mr. Sheon said that Procacci Bros. will now take the fight to the USDA and Congress in an effort to convince the Florida Tomato Committee to change its mind. He said that the first choice of Procacci would be to have the committee unilaterally rethink the issue and vote to allow the fruit to be shipped. But with that prospect seeming unlikely, he said that Procacci will ask the USDA to intervene and veto the decision of the FTC.
Under federal marketing order rules, regulatory decisions by committees such as the FTC are typically advisory with the final decision being made by the USDA. Though agreement is usually a foregone conclusion, there have been times when the USDA has gone against the "advice of a marketing order board. Mr. Sheon said that the firm has also been in contact with "members of Congress from both sides of the aisle who are considering action that would revoke this
marketing order which was established in 1955.
Though Mr. Sheon would not comment on the expected result of these actions, it seemed clear that they are designed to have the FTC rethink its position. Neither the USDA nor Congress is known for a quick response on such matters, and Procacci Bros. is looking for relief before this season ends in June.
Mr. Sheon also said that retailers should be assured that Procacci Bros. will have "UglyRipes" this season, as greenhouse production from Mexico is about to begin.