Scandal strikes the tomato-paste industry.

What to eat. What not to eat.
March 19 2010 11:21 AM

Rotten Tomatoes

Scandal strikes the tomato-paste industry.

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I've spent two years talking with people in the tomato business, and in that time I haven't found many willing to volunteer a nice comment about Salyer, whose grandfather "Cockeye" Clarence Salyer came to California in 1918 and at one time owned 50,000 acres of farmland. The Salyers lost most of their land in a battle with the rival Boswell clan. And now he's lost SK Foods, which declared bankruptcy last year. Nine of Salyer's employees or the purchasing managers they bribed had pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges prior to Salyer's arrest. He's being held without bail in Sacramento, facing 20 years in prison if convicted.

Salyer's arrest seems to be the climax of the federal investigation, but food companies have meanwhile filed class action lawsuits against SK and two other big California tomato processors, Ingomar Foods and Los Gatos Foods. The lawsuits claim that the three companies conspired to set domestic prices, a claim they deny. Ingomar and Los Gatos officials have said they rue the day they got involved with Salyer.

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If the tomato investigation goes deep enough, other dark secrets might turn up. Six years ago, a field manager for Rio Bravo, Jerry Gilbert, committed suicide in the middle of a legal conflict. A farmer had sued Gilbert, claiming that in previous years—when Gilbert was still working for Morning Star—he requested what amounted to bribes in exchange for a tomato-growing contract. Then, according to the farmer, Gilbert stiffed him.

Gilbert's job was to buy tomatoes from farmers in an area measuring several hundred square miles around Morning Star's cannery in Williams, which is the biggest in the world. It's a complicated affair because the contracts are usually signed in the spring, but the size of the summer harvest is always subject to weather.

A dirty field manager, farmers say, will guarantee you—for a price—a good spot in the harvest schedule, so your tomatoes don't rot on the vine. Or, say you're a farmer and you've contracted to sell one of the companies 50,000 tons of tomatoes, but ended up producing 55,000 tons because of good weather. It's September and you have 5,000 tons of tomatoes sitting ripe in your fields. The field manager will do you a favor: He'll buy your tomatoes for 50 cents on the dollar. What choice do you have? And then maybe he'll put your tomatoes through a dummy contract set up with another farmer, who'll sell them at full price to the cannery and split the returns with his friend the field manager. "There's been every kind of scam you can imagine in this business," says Don Cameron, who manages a large farm near Huron.

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As far as the consumer is concerned, the Salyer case is of little significance. Moldy tomatoes don't pose a health risk if they've been cooked and recooked by food processors. And the added price for paste that his buyers paid in return for bribes probably had a negligible effect on consumer prices. It hasn't affected the business much, either. Olam, a Singaporean concern, bought out SK's canneries and has taken up the slack.

Tomato industry folk in California are ready for the whole saga to end."Everyone is so darn happy he's getting his just rewards," said Gwen Young, a tomato executive with Kagome, a Japanese food-processing giant. "We can't have anyone playing underhand. It makes it sound like the rest of us do, and we don't." One bad tomato, she says, doesn't spoil the whole 3,000-pound aseptically sealed box. *

Correction, March 19, 2010: This article originally referred to a 300-pound box of tomatoes. The author meant a 3,000-pound box. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Arthur Allen, author of Vaccine and Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato, can be reached at artnews@earthlink.net.