Tomato: how the excellence of Made in Italy is destroyed | Milena Gabanelli

Is it possible that Italy, as a world reference country for tomato production and processing, loses positions every year? If we look at the numbers of 2020, we see that it was a record year for the canned sector, where Italy is confirmed as the leader with 5.1 million tons of processed tomatoes, a world production share of 13% and a turnover of 3.5 billion euros. The United States does better: over 10.2 million tons processed thanks to California, which is the first production area in the world. But second place has just been snatched from us by China, with 5.8 million tons.

Sales grow

We are certainly leaders in the production and export of tomato derivatives for the final consumer. We are talking about fruits collected here, processed, and sold canned or bottled in the form of peeled, pureed or pulp. There are two cultivation and processing areas: – the North district – led by the provinces of Piacenza, Ferrara, Parma and Mantua – and the South one where cultivation is concentrated in the areas of Foggia, Caserta and Potenza, while the canning factories are located in the Agro Nocerino-Sarnese in Campania. Retail sales increased 7% year-on-year and exports + 8%. In the first two months of 2021, retail sales grew by 5% and the season is expected to close with the zeroing of stocks in the warehouse. But behind the positive numbers there is an increasingly difficult supply chain.

The harvest

Labor in the fields gradually replaced by mechanical harvesting (85% of the total), but continues to be enslaved in the south, despite the 2016 law against illegal hiring. Immigrants, Africans, Bulgarians and Romanians are used for hand-picking. Who has a regular contract earns around 45 euros a day. The big man works for piecework and in black: 4 euros for each 3 quintal box. If you manage to fill 20 you can even get to 80 euros, but then you have to give the corporal from 2 to 5 euros for transport to the fields, from 20 to 50 cents for each box collected.

Who always earns

large retailers to play a central role in price compression, both of the processed products and of the raw material: through downward tenders, it establishes the value of tomatoes already before the production season, therefore without knowing the quantity and quality of the harvest.

Most of the preserves then sold in Italy in the form of private label, ie brands directly linked to the giants of distribution. Only some processing companies such as Mutti and Cirio manage to impose their brand on the shelves

The majority of the 115 canning companies (there were 178 in 2010) is located in the Center-South, employs 10,000 employees (there were double the number of permanent workers ten years ago) and 20,000 seasonal workers: to stay on the market, it sells at lower prices than production. A mechanism that affects the entire supply chain. Having pre-sold at very low prices – denounces the Third Report of the Dirty Supply Chain Campaign – the entrepreneur will have to refer to the producer, imposing increasingly lower purchase prices and trying as soon as possible to free himself from contractual obligations that already provide conditions at the limit of subsistence for farmers.

What is sold on the domestic and foreign market

Italians consume about 30 kg per person per year of tomato products. In 2020, the best-selling product on our shelves was passata (54%), followed by pulps (21%), peeled tomatoes (11%) and ready-made sauces (10%). The processing companies compensate the low internal profitability with the foreign market where the Made in Italy brand is the most sold: peeled tomatoes (39%), followed by pureed tomatoes (37%) and concentrates with 12-30% of dry matter (20 %). In fact, more than 60% of total production ends up across the border: canned food in 2020 were the agri-food products with the best balance of trade and a surplus of 1.7 billion euros.

Boom in imports from China

In recent years – says Coldiretti – the turnover of derivatives arriving from abroad has grown, almost half from China: most of them in industrial drums of 200 kilos of concentrate to be reworked and packaged. Many of the Chinese factories involved are located in Xinjiang, the region inhabited by the persecuted minority of Uyghurs. that according to Jean-Baptiste Malet’s Rotten Red book are also employed in the harvest as seasonal forced laborers.

In the 90s it was the industrialists from Campania who taught the craft of tomato processing to the Chinese, transferring know-how and machinery in exchange for raw material

In 30 years Beijing, which has enormously low production costs, has become the second largest player in the world. Between 2018 and 2020, imports from China increased from 35,200 to 68,600 tons, transforming the Asian country into Italy’s top supplier. And this year the volumes will increase again: already in February 18,500 tons of products entered (they were 13,400 in the same period last year).

The disappearance of the San Marzano

The canning industry, which remains a strategic sector of the Italian economy, it has structural problems that sooner or later it will have to face. Among these there is the serious crisis of the peeled tomato: it grows exclusively in the South and represents the highest excellence of the Italian tomato. Production is dropping drastically year after year, and according to companies and farmers due to the fact that consumers prefer purees and ready-made sauces. It is clear that in the long run the Italian peeled tomato risks disappearing. already happened at San Marzano, first brought to its knees by the building expansion in the Agro Nocerino-Sarnese which canceled most of the cultivated fields, and then destroyed in the late 1980s by a virus. The famous quality of peeled tomatoes reborn only thanks to the science that has recovered the original seed in the laboratory, but for some time a niche product that does not lend itself to the mass production required by the market.

In the end, the much appreciated Italian tomato, unique in the world for quality and biodiversity, risks turning into a standardized commodity, same as that produced in Spain or California. The boom in imports, especially from China, shows the sector’s inability to be self-sufficient. Prices are falling, volumes are growing, fraud is increasing, and a brand’s reputation drops along with that of the entire supply chain.

June 22, 2021 | 22:59


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