Checking out China's booming tomato business.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 12 2007 5:17 PM

Ketchup Diplomacy in Red China

Checking out the country's booming tomato business.

(Continued from Page 1)

From the foreign side, one heard expressions of worry, amusement, schadenfreude, and paternalism. At a banquet, a European tomato processor rose to toast the Chinese and then gently chided them for dumping their products in overseas markets. The Cofco employee who interpreted this speech for the dignitaries on hand (including the governor of Xinjiang) excised all except for the cheerful banalities. "China is getting freer," the interpreter told me later, "but it isn't totally free."

Some Italians are especially worked up over what they view as a Faustian bargain their industry made here. In the 1990s, searching for cheap product for their export markets, Italian companies began setting up tomato-processing plants in China to provide paste, which Italian canners repackaged, slapped with  "Made in Italy" stickers, and shipped to Africa. Soon, though, the Chinese figured out a way to market their paste directly to the Africans and began selling it in Europe as well. In 2002, customs agents seized 160 tons of rotting, worm-infested Chinese paste at the Italian port of Bari. Much to their horror, Italian consumers soon learned that some of the paste on their shelves had come from China, where, as it was pointed out, there were lax controls on sanitation, pesticides, and heavy-metal contamination. "Italy—Invaded by Chinese tomatoes!" screamed a Corriere della Sera article in 2005. That year, Italian tomatoes rotted in the fields because Chinese paste imports had lowered the price so far that the Italian tomatoes were no longer worth harvesting.

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This is where ketchup diplomacy comes in. Eager to assure their foreign guests that Chinese tomato production was not growing at the expense of foreign producers, the Chinese stressed that their young people consume more tomatoes all the time—in the form of pizza sauce or ketchup on fries and burgers, at the 3,000 or so fast food emporiums that have opened in China over the past couple of decades.

This junk food explosion, and the recognition that China is starting to have an obesity problem, however, seemed slightly at odds with the marketing pitch. Processed tomatoes are, in fact, good for you—full of lycopene and other molecules that may help prevent cancer and heart disease. But it kind of depends on how you eat them.

"So the way to save the world's tomato industry is by getting the Chinese to eat more junk food?" I whispered to the representative of a major food processing company.

 "You weren't supposed to notice that," she responded.

What of the quality of the Chinese produce? The consensus seemed to be that while China was doing a plausible job making tomato paste, it had a ways to go. Juan Jose Amezaga, a handsome, chain-smoking, hyperkinetic Spanish tomato consultant, rushed around the factories, identifying the weak spots. (Late blight! Rust in the trucks! Tomatoes rotting as farmers wait for hours to enter the cannery!)

"A sheety tomato is a sheety tomato," he was heard to say.

Amezaga wasn't the only one with doubts. Tomatoes are very difficult to keep pest-free, and in some of the Xinjiang fields, the visitors observed varieties of mold and viral infections they didn't even recognize. Jim Beecher, a hale and hearty Fresno farmer, stooped over a patch of moldy, black-spotted tomatoes and calculated that where his California fields might average 40 tons per acre, these were producing barely half that yield. His expression was one of relief.

While free land and cheap labor give China advantages, tomatoes are a finicky fruit, and tomato production a tricky business. A month ago, word arrived that China had lost nearly a quarter of its tomato crop. The cause? You guessed it: mold in Inner Mongolia.

Arthur Allen is the author of The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl, Ripe, and Vaccine. He is a health writer and editor at Politico.

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