January 25, 2017

Processed tomatoes a market mainstay

Processed tomatoes have long had a major market in the foodservices sector; nothing new here. What is new, though, is a small but growing trend toward fresh-cut processing, where fresh-market tomatoes are sliced and diced and sold to retailers and the foodservices sector. Growth is fueled by a number of factors, including labor limitations, changing production in Mexico and demand for new varieties.

Per capita consumption of processing tomatoes is much higher than for fresh-market tomatoes, said Roberta Cook of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis. In fact, over half of the production of open-field tomatoes in the United States goes to the foodservice sector, and that has long been the case.

The foodservice sector, Cook said, is a primary market for mature green tomatoes, so field-grown tomatoes are harvested at stage two of a six-stage ripening scale.

“So it’s mature enough that they will mature if you give them ethylene gas,” Cook said. “If you put them in tomato ripening rooms they will ripen up and get red color, and they are very firm. That is what is desired by the fast food industry.”

Recently, though, an increasing share of those tomatoes is being sold to fresh-cut processors. This isn’t entirely new, as fast food chains have long purchased pre-sliced tomatoes to go on sandwiches. Cook attributes this growth to labor limitations at the restaurant level.

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“This is a trend that affects all fresh produce,” she said. “More restaurants are buying things that are pre-sliced or diced.”

There has also been growth in fresh-cut tomato products, such as fresh-cut salsas, that are sold in retail produce departments.

“Those would be diced — this is a fresh product, not a canned salsa —and fresh-cut processors would also be dicing tomatoes and chilis, cilantro and other products to be incorporated,” Cook said. “That has some reasonable sales in fresh produce retail departments in the United States.”

Greenhouse industry making impact

Suppliers are changing hands as well. Typically, tomatoes produced in open fields have fueled the foodservice sector.

“The greenhouse tomato industry in the United States is becoming more important, and greenhouse tomatoes typically have not been sold in foodservice channels,” Cook said. “One of the reasons for that is because they aren’t as firm.”

Vegetable seed breeders are working to change that. Over the last decade or more, they have been working to come up with varieties with greater firmness that can be grown in greenhouses. These, Cook said, will likely be more attractive to foodservice users.

“On the other hand, they’re more expensive and foodservice is very focused on cost, so it’s a tiny share of the foodservice market in the United States of tomatoes that would be grown in greenhouses,” she added.

Today, though, there has been growth in the greenhouse sector, thanks in part to major growth in snacking tomatoes over the last decade.

“The fact that there has been increasing consumer demand for snacking tomatoes at retail has been something that has presented an opportunity in foodservice because those tomatoes don’t have to be cut so they can go right in the salads,” Cook said.

In particular, fast food chains have shown interest in adding “snackers” to their menus. Originally, snacking tomatoes were grape tomatoes grown in the field. But over time, as the snacking category has evolved, there are many more types of snacking tomatoes. Increasingly, they’re grown in greenhouses.

“That’s giving the greenhouse industry an opportunity to get those types of tomatoes into foodservice channels,” Cook said.

Mexico is also contributing to some of the growing trends. High-production regions, like the plateaus of Sinaloa, have been developing technology for better production. Increasingly, they’re using shade houses, a form of protected agriculture, to produce better tomatoes at less expense.

“Mexico has always tapped that market,” Cook said, referring to year-round production for regions of North America that can’t supply the market in colder months. “But now they’re doing it with a variety of technology levels there.”

Growing tomatoes in protected culture is less expensive than growing them in greenhouses, so that has helped the Sinaloa industry provide product for more of the foodservice users.

“That can help combat the cost barrier in foodservice,” she said.

Processed tomatoes a staple

The processed tomato sector doesn’t see much change. Speakers at this year’s International Tomato Conference in Antwerp, Belgium, did highlight some areas of growth, though. Stefano Teatini, purchase manager at Autogrill Belux, for instance, said they now focus on “tribes” to fuel growing trends.

He broke consumers down into six distinct categories: the sharing enthusiasts, the new normal, the happy-go-lucky, the nail biters, the urban dandy and the life enrichers. Each category, he said, chooses tomato products based on how they view life. For instance, sharing enthusiasts look for variety to meet everyone’s needs, which leads them to choose products in “spectacular shapes and colors.” The nail biters’ decisions, on the other hand, are fueled by convenience and pragmatism. For this reason, they’re drawn to simple products with a longer expiration date at lower prices.

In order to service these growing markets, Teatini suggests that fresh-cut processors focus on tribes and trends and develop products for those tribes.

“It is unlikely that one product will service all tribes,” he said.

Storytelling is almost as important as the product itself, he said. But the story must be authentic and true.

As of late, tomato processing giant Elvea has also seen growth and development. In recent years, Elvea has staked much on innovation, said Christophe Janssens, marketing manager of Charlier-Brabo Group, a food distribution company and owner of Elvea tomato products.

“Since 2007, there has been an ‘innovation wave,’ and Elvea now offers an assortment with 42 references,” he said. “Two of the newest products are tomato concentrate with bell pepper and tomato concentrate with other vegetables.

“We are also looking for new consumer opportunities, and these products could also be used as a dip, for example,” he said. “We might also supply fresh tomatoes in the coming years, but that is still in the future.”

— Melanie Epp, contributing writer