China's potential in the global processing tomato market is nothing to dismiss lightly, despite the obstacles currently challenging its growers and processors.

California processing tomato growers and others associated with the industry got a first-hand look recently at a Chinese production system as participants in a World Processing Tomato Council (WPTC) study tour to China.

“The tour included a total of 44 members from 19 countries and another 150 or so Chinese,” says Ross Siragusa, president of the California Tomato Growers Association. “The purpose of the trip was to learn firsthand about the Chinese industry from field to processing plant.”

China is a force to be reckoned with, at least in the foreseeable future, according to Don Cameron, manager of Terranova Ranch in Helm, Calif. “China's processing tomato industry is fairly new to the game,” he says. “They have only been growing processing tomatoes since the mid to late 1970s. They now produce between four and five million tons per year, primarily for paste production. They are the third largest producer, and they are committed to increasing production. And they will increase production if they can overcome certain obstacles.”

Those obstacles are not processing equipment, according to Cameron. “They have the best,” he says. “The system there needs changes that can only occur if they convince the many farmers that grow tomatoes. Their delivery system lacks promptness which results in deterioration of the tomatoes before they get to the processing plant.”

China's problems begin in the field, and they are arguably significant. However, no one looking at the situation has much doubt those problems can be overcome.

“We saw a very limited number of fields during the tour,” says Chuck Rivara, director of the California Tomato Research Institute. “We made three stops to fields during the tour. The statistics we regularly hear regarding Chinese growers producing about two-thirds of California yields seemed consistent with the fields we viewed.”

Shortcomings in yield are due primarily to irrigation, disease, and production practices, according to Rivara. However, none of those factors appear to be long-term, insurmountable problems.

“China has a short season which makes it difficult, but not impossible,” Rivara says. “Canadian processing tomato yields have been ahead of California the past few years.” The Chinese version of “drip” irrigation is also a factor in yield and quality. “This is a two-inch diameter thin poly tubing under gravity pressure,” Rivara says. “It is placed under a poly film across the bed-top for weed control and to reduce soil surface saturating. Two of the fields we viewed with the system appeared over-irrigated. Fruit mold was present and appeared to reduce yields in the fields we viewed.

“It appeared more loss was from wet soil contact on fruit (irrigation system soaking) than from humidity or rainfall. Viruses were evident, but we were not able to assess the impact. Extensive hedgerows and weed vegetation could pose serious virus hosts, but their long, cold winters should limit the more serious diseases plaguing warmer growing areas.”

Despite production and processing challenges, China's processing tomato industry is on the rise. “They do have potential and should not be underestimated,” Cameron says. “They sell domestically, as well as to many other countries including the European Union and former Soviet countries, and a small amount to the U.S. The biggest problem has been low quality. However, just remember, ‘made in Japan’ used to mean low quality and now Japan sells us a lot of our automobiles.”

Quality is definitely the buzz of the industry no matter if it's China or the U.S. “There was a lot of talk about their commitment to quality and their ISO ratings,” Cameron says. ISO is a network of the national standards institutes of 157 countries; ISO is the world's largest developer and publisher of international standards. “The problem is that less than 25 percent of the plants have ISO ratings. They do know that food safety is an issue for them. We need to keep in mind that a problem with food safety in China's tomatoes could spell a problem for the entire world processing tomato industry, as we all get painted with the same brush at times.”

China is making progress, according to Rivara. “Consider the fact that they've only had processing tomato production for 20 years and that's been comprised of thousands of small farms with limited technological background,” he says. “What they lack in homegrown applied research, is rapidly being made up by foreign joint-ventures filling the void.”

With considerable water and land resources in the region and rapid national economic growth, multinational companies see China as both a supplier and major consumer. “Expect a lot of global interest in China in the future when it comes to processing tomatoes,” Rivara says.