Tomato processors have joined the California Tomato Growers Association (CTGA) in establishing a group to promote the health benefits – and consumption - of processing tomatoes.

The Tomato Products Wellness Council took shape late last year as 16 processors united with the association to work for increased consumption the crop through collaborative research and communication of findings to consumers.

Selection of research priorities and projects are the first order of business, and publicity functions will follow. The council is based at the association’s headquarters in Stockton and is directed by consultant Rodger Wasson.

In a display of cooperative spirit between vigorous competitors, representatives of Campbell Soup Co., Del Monte Foods, and H.J. Heinz Co. explained during the recent CTGA annual meeting in Modesto why they joined the council.

Chor San Khoo, vice president, nutrition and global health, Campbell Soup Co., noted that tomato is the top vegetable ingredient in their product line of soups, sauces, and salsa and exceeds $1 billion in sales in North America.

“Consumers already believe that vegetables are a safe way to healthy eating. One out of two consumers we surveyed in 2005 is aware that tomato products have health benefits,” Khoo said.

Eat too little

However, she said, only 20 percent of consumers follow through and actually consume vegetables in adequate amounts.

“There is a tremendous gap between what they consume and what they believe they should to meet the guidelines. It is important for us to find ways of using tomatoes as a safe way for consumers to eat more vegetables and fill the gap.”

She went on to say that from Campbell’s perspective it is very important that they participate in and help shape the council. “The bottom line is we are looking for new growth opportunities in the tomato products category.”

She listed four points they seek through the council: first, to convince consumers that substantial health benefits are available; second, to communicate these results rapidly on a sustained basis; third, to dispel any myths about tomatoes; and fourth, to provide ways to help consumers consume more tomato products.

“We feel the council can provide an independent, focused, and shared-cost approach to fund new research that can talk about health benefits of tomatoes,” she said. “For the first time we have a means of discussing issues among growers, manufacturers, academia, and regulators.”

Lawrence Hawley, director, nutrition and regulatory affairs, Del Monte Foods, said they are interested because the council can gather more vital information than the company can by itself.

Del Monte, whose diversity spans from tomato products and processed fruits and vegetables to seafood and pet foods, wants to provide convenient products for families on a continuous basis, he said.

Needs information

“We want people to believe what we say about nourishing foods, and we need information that will bring home the message in their daily lives. They need to know there is real, solid science behind what we are talking about.”

Also needed are proven, practical research results with real people and real products, Hawley added. “There’s a lot of academic research that uses model systems or specialized diets and is not really clear about what people are really eating to gain healthy benefits. We need to craft messages that are truly resonating for consumers.”

Del Monte, Hawley said, joined the council to gain more information. “We need more proof of tomato benefits. A lot is written in the scientific literature, there’s a lot to be discovered, and there are serious constraints on what we can say, based on gaps in knowledge and regulatory restrictions.”

H.J. Heinz Co.’s director of global nutrition, Ida Marie LaQuatra, rounded out the panel and said her company joined the council simply “to sell more tomato products.”

While there’s excitement about the healthy aspects of tomatoes, much of it, she said, is not being communicated. “Based on national surveys, we know that tomatoes are a good food and because of the frequency that people eat them they are one of the top five food sources of many nutrients. All the research on phytochemicals in tomatoes makes it a very exciting time,” she said.

What’s needed, she offered, is a vehicle to connect academic research and processors. Through the council, “we can craft research that is practical for the consumer.”

Targeted research

The alliance, she continued, can provide targeted research and communication that not only conveys the general fruit and vegetable message but the tomato message in particular, which tends to get lost among the others.

“Tomatoes are sort of a taken-for-granted vegetable, and we’d like to see them in the spotlight. Specifically, process tomatoes have a message we can communicate. Consumers already like tomatoes, so we have a foot in the door to get them to increase consumption.”

LaQuatra said the tomato industry, following the example of the dairy industry, can provide industry-wide scientific information on tomatoes to consumers growing more cynical about messages from single companies.

The council is funded by annual membership dues of $7,500 for growers, processors, and brand representatives. Additional funding is from voluntary grower and processor contributions of 2.5 cents per ton of raw product. Tomato product brands also will contribute toward approved research projects and generic public relations.

Don Cameron, CTGA chairman and Helm grower, hailed the council as a first step in sealing the interests of growers and processors, typically in tense, adversarial price negotiations each season, for the benefit of the entire industry.

“Now I challenge growers and processors,” Cameron said, “to come together to create a multi-year contract to keep the California processing tomato industry strong and unified so it does not go the way of other commodities in the U.S.”

CTGA president Ross Siragusa predicted the council will “give consumers credible, scientific validation for processing tomato consumption.”