WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has intervened in the national debate over the UglyRipe tomato, freeing the heirloom beefsteak variety tomato from the shape restrictions imposed by the Florida Tomato Committee.
The tomato’s developer, Joe Procacci, had been at odds over the tomato with the Florida Tomato Committee, a group of competing growers sanctioned by federal law.
The Florida Tomato Committee is empowered to determine all size and shape standards for tomatoes entering the U.S. market from mid-October to mid-June, the time of year when many Americans claim they’re unable to find a tasty tomato.
Substandard. For the last three years, the Florida Tomato Committee has found that the UglyRipe does not meet its rigorous standards, which are based on size and shape, but not taste.
The committee’s rejection meant that the tomatoes were prohibited for sale outside of the Florida growing region during the winter months.
The new USDA rule amends the Florida Tomato Marketing Order to exempt the UglyRipe from the shape portion of the USDA grade standards as long as the UglyRipe is grown, packed, and distributed under USDA’s Identity Preservation Program.
The program uses the unique genetic fingerprint of a produce variety to assure that it is in fact the product claimed by its grower.
The UglyRipe will still have to meet all of the other grade standards imposed under the marketing order.
Exempted. For three years beginning in 1999, the Florida Tomato Committee exempted the UglyRipe from the standards of Florida round tomatoes and allowed the heirloom variety UglyRipe to be shipped outside the state.
After the 2003-2004 crop of UglyRipes were already in the ground, the Florida Tomato Committee refused to allow the product to be sold outside of Florida, claiming the UglyRipe was too misshapen and would damage the reputation of the Florida marketplace, resulting in millions of pounds of tasty tomatoes wasted.
Last year, USDA proposed a rule change to grant a partial exemption to the Minimum Grade Requirements for the UglyRipe tomato and in September published the public comments regarding the proposed change.
Response. The overwhelming majority of comments supported the change. The company has also received hundreds of e-mails from fans of the UglyRipe, many wondering where the UglyRipe can be found near them.
The UglyRipe is set to be the first product in the USDA’s Identity Preservation Program, a comprehensive auditing system for verifying production, handling, processing and storage of unique, value-added crops.
The program also affords participants opportunities to verify other product quality traits, such as variety.
Blog. Fans of the UglyRipe can also look forward to a new outlet to share their passion with other fans. Santa Sweets plans to launch a tomato blog (Web log) in the coming weeks and also plans an online store for customers who prefer to order UglyRipes online.
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