Yellow Ketchup

Los Angeles Times
Saturday November 13, 1999
SATURDAY JOURNAL
Trying to Strike Gold in a Yellow Tomato
* Career path’s twists lead geneticist on a quest to put flavor back in the fruit.
By TERRY McDERMOTT, TIMES STAFF WRITER
There are perhaps a dozen professional tomato breeders in the United States and no more than twice that worldwide. One–and we think only one–dreams of making yellow ketchup.
Kanti Rawal, a plant geneticist, came to California almost 20 years ago and soon thereafter embarked on a great, strange, tomato-breeding adventure that included forays into biotechnology, corporate takeovers and yellow ketchup. Rawal’s still here. The ketchup isn’t. Here’s his story.
It is the story of how at the end of the 20th century we have come to eat what we eat, including tomatoes that taste, as Rawal puts it, “like cardboard.”
Beyond tomato particulars, it is also a story that reflects the transition of farming from sole proprietor to vast industrial undertaking–as well as a story of human progress, and its discontents.
It is, in other words, a story of California.
The obvious question you might ask of a man who would make yellow ketchup is why? The short answer is someone asked him to.
Rawal is a small, energetic man, with dark wavy hair going gray, copper-brown skin as luxuriantly deep in color as polished leather. His face, at 54 years old, has the guilelessness of a child and he exerts an all-in enthusiasm to match.
In 1981, Rawal gave up a tenured position on the University of Colorado faculty–he was beginning to “sink in its comfort,” he says–and went to work for Del Monte, one of the country’s oldest and largest food processing companies. At the time, Del Monte was going through a difficult period, falling behind competitors on a number of fronts. One specific concern was the company’s failure to keep pace with competitors that had moved their tomato growing operations to California.
Del Monte originated in California, but most of its crops, and in particular its tomatoes, were grown in the Midwest. Tomatoes, up to the 1960s, were a seasonal crop eaten fresh or processed into ketchup. Cuisines that made extensive use of tomatoes–specifically Italian and Mexican foods–were little more than novelties in most American kitchens. When that changed, so did the demand for tomatoes.
To meet the surging demand, big tomato growers–Campbell’s, H.J. Heinz and Hunt’s–moved tomato operations west to California to take advantage of new harvesting and processing methods that cut costs sharply. Del Monte was caught unawares. The company had failed to recognize that California’s Central Valley, after subsidized irrigation became broadly available in the 1960s, was the most efficient place on the planet to grow almost anything.
“It’s the world’s largest natural greenhouse,” Rawal says. “The productivity of any crop that grows here is the most in the world.”
Which is another way of saying it is by far the cheapest place to grow tomatoes.
Large food companies typically breed their own varieties of plants suited to the uses of their produce and the location of their planting. An Indiana tomato wouldn’t necessarily work on a California farm. Similarly, a tomato picked by hand–as tomatoes had always been–might not fare well in the metal maw of the new mechanical pickers being used in California. The machines remove tomatoes from their vines by scooping the vine up off the ground and shaking it.
From the tomato’s point of view, the effect isn’t much different than being hit with a baseball bat. This tomato needs to be tough. It also needs to ripen at the same time as all its brother tomatoes on the vine, since the picking machine scrapes the entire plant out of the ground.
Del Monte hadn’t developed new tomato lines to meet these demands.
Rawal at the time was not a tomato specialist, per se. His doctoral work had been in wheat, with subsequent field work in African black-eyed peas. But he is a plant geneticist, and genetics is almost alone among the sciences in being governed by a single, powerful, overarching theory: evolution. You don’t have to understand a specific species to understand the forces that control it. You need only understand the general rules governing natural selection.
“My first project was to make sure Del Monte had a standing in tomatoes in California,” Rawal says. “It was a very interesting problem. You had to come up with a variety that does not disrupt the process: One, you have to have a tomato variety that will give you multiple products. Two, you’re stuck with the machinery. And three, in contrast to the Midwest, the farmers have a choice. You have to give them a reason to grow your crop. So the crop has to be high yield.”
Rawal had come to the United States from southern India in the 1960s for graduate study under renowned geneticist Jack Harlan, who instilled in students a sense of almost missionary obligation. Rawal became a ready convert, a pocket-sized, longhaired, bearded, radicalized Indian teaching assistant hopping off a motorcycle to teach Illinois farm boys about the life-saving power of wheat seeds. Then came Vietnam and its powerful disaffections; the zeal receded into benign pragmatism.
He became a problem solver. Give him a puzzle, he would try to solve it. Del Monte gave Rawal tomatoes. He went to work.
Mr. Tomato in a Deep, Deep Rut
If you need tomatoes, you go see Charley Rick.
More precisely, you go to UC Davis to the C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center, the earth’s largest repository of tomato seeds, named for its creator and genial overseer, the world’s foremost authority on tomato varieties.
Davis is a quiet, flat, friendly place, ideal for bicycles and tractors. It is one of a handful of locations around the globe where modern agriculture has been invented. As such, it is routinely praised and damned, often for the same accomplishments. Its scientists are lauded for boosting crop productivity and accused of creating food that, in the process of being re-engineered, has been denatured, robbed of taste.
Charley Rick came here as a young man at the tail end of the Great Depression. He was fresh out of Harvard and looking for a job. Any job, he says. He got one in what was then called the Department of Truck Crops. The chairman told him it might be interesting to look at tomatoes, paying particular attention to what are called bull tomatoes–mutant plants whose vines grow vigorously but produce no fruit. Rick dutifully took a trip through the tomato test plots.
“Nobody ever paid them any attention because why would you want to study something that doesn’t produce. It’s a curiosity,” Rick recollects. “I felt the same way as everybody else. It’s interesting, but. . . . A month later I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. ‘My God, Rick, you better get out there and study these things.’ ”
What Rick found in the specific case of bull tomatoes was an indication of something much larger and long overlooked: the tomato’s tremendous natural variation.
“By the end of that season, oh man, I had quite a collection of material. I just had two decades of work laid out for me. It was absolutely phenomenal.”
The two decades eventually became almost six. The study of bull tomatoes led Rick to the door of the plant’s genetic diversity. On the other side of that door lay a great wide world centered in the Andean highlands of Chile, Ecuador and Peru, where tomatoes originated. He became concerned that there was no consistent effort being made anywhere in the world to preserve this tremendous genetic legacy.
On the contrary, contemporary agricultural practice tended to reduce diversity, not enhance it. Farmers want predictability, not difference. Species were disappearing almost as he watched. Rick organized hunting expeditions to the Andes. By day, he would scour the countryside for new tomatoes. At night, in camp, he would extract the seed, preparing for transport back to Davis, where he eventually amassed the world’s most diverse collection of tomato seed, which is to say the future of the tomato on earth.
In a superheated world where youngsters are told they will change jobs about as often as they change oil in their cars, Rick has stayed put, building and tending this great bank of genetic possibilities. He’s a lanky man who wears running shoes and leaves his bush hat on indoors. Today, long after retirement, he comes to the university every day and does pretty much the same things he’s been doing for the last 60 years.
Rick’s legacy, the Tomato Genetics Resource Center, is housed in a plain concrete building called the Annex. Inside is a small room with a smaller 42-degree closet that is the vault in which the seeds of more than 4,000 varieties of tomatoes are kept. They are stored in plain envelopes, sorted chronologically into drawers. Several species stored here have gone extinct in the wild.
They’d be gone for good if Rick hadn’t brought them back home to this closet.
Turning Yellow
Kanti Rawal talked to Rick about developing new tomato lines that would stand up to the rigors of modern harvesting and processing equipment. Rick steered him toward likely tomato types, and over the course of the next two years Rawal crossbred tomatoes until he came up with plants that did exactly what Del Monte wanted.
By 1985, Rawal’s new tomatoes helped Del Monte establish itself in the stewed tomato and sauce businesses, but the company’s ketchup was tanking. The advent of home tomato sauces had cut sharply into ketchup consumption and Heinz was routing all competition in the market that was left.
At about this time, Del Monte was taken over by the hastily arranged conglomerate that would become RJR Nabisco. Rawal was placed on a corporation-wide new product committee and it was there, on a conference call, that the question of what to do about ketchup was raised.
Del Monte’s market research people had turned up an avenue of attack. The researchers had determined that young people, especially teenagers, dislike sharp, pungent foods. Mustard, for example; they hate mustard. That was OK with Del Monte since it wasn’t big in the mustard business, anyway. The researchers also said that one thing young eaters did like was brightly colored food.
If Del Monte had something sweet and bright, it could sell that.
Rawal thought about that for a while.
How about this, he proposed: We could make a yellow ketchup and attack Heinz on two fronts: We could invade their ketchup business on one hand and cut their market share in mustard on the other.
The marketing people were thrilled, but they wondered: How do we make ketchup yellow?
It’s simple, Rawal said. You make it out of something yellow, bananas, for example. Banana ketchup? Well, yes. Rawal had previously helped a Del Monte Philippine subsidiary develop a yellow condiment out of ripe bananas that were otherwise being thrown away. Ketchup is a combination of vinegar, sugar, spices and some solid. There are ancient recipes that use almost anything but tomatoes–walnuts, mushrooms, gooseberries, even anchovies–as the solid ingredient.
What Rawal didn’t know but soon found out was that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was not a big fan of ancient recipes. If something was going to be called ketchup, it had to be made from tomatoes.
Well, he said, let’s make it with yellow tomatoes then.
This is the kind of idea that often emerges when people are encouraged to think outside the box (or bottle, as it happened). Never mind that this was probably silly on the face of it. It sounded good at the time. It was new. It was great. And, most important, Heinz didn’t have it.
Rawal was told to go for it.
“The first thing I did was call Charley Rick again. I said, ‘I’m looking for a yellow tomato I can use for processing, to make ketchup.’ He laughed and asked me what I was smoking.”
Rick told Rawal that yellow tomato mutants were fairly common. About one in 100,000 naturally occurring mutations is yellow. And there were in fact, yellow tomato seeds sold commercially to home gardeners. But a backyard tomato would never hold up to the rigors of the ketchup business. The new tomato had to be a firm variety. All the tomatoes on the plant would have to mature at the same time. And they had to have the correct balance of sugars and acids. What Rawal needed were the exact qualities red processing tomatoes had, only in yellow.
Rawal, if he had chosen, could have attempted to make the yellow tomato in a laboratory. Color is determined by a single gene on Chromosome 6 of the tomato’s DNA. Rawal could have attempted to splice the yellow gene into one of the red tomatoes he had previously developed. But he is not a big fan of biotechnical solutions, which he thinks are susceptible to public disapproval and more difficult to achieve in any event.
He quotes an old Indian proverb: Why try to eat the honey with your elbow if you have a spoon.
The spoon in this case was simple, classic Mendelian genetics. He set up a breeding program starting with yellow mutant seed from Rick’s gene bank and standard red processing tomatoes. Crossbreeding tomatoes is extraordinarily simple. You grow the two varieties you want to cross, then physically rub the pollen from one onto the stigma of the other. In a month or so, you’ll have a live hybrid in your hand.
The difficulty is in knowing what that hybrid will be–which characteristics of each parent it will have. Even more difficult is getting the desired characteristics into the succeeding generations. It’s a fairly laborious, time-consuming process. There is simply no way to make the plant grow any faster than it wants.
Rawal was able to use Del Monte’s resources around the world to give him a virtually endless growing season. He started the hybrids in the company greenhouses in San Leandro, in the San Francisco Bay Area, then followed the sun to Guadalajara, Mexico; the Central Valley; the Philippines; the Imperial Valley; and Stockton. The effect was to squeeze six breeding seasons into a single calendar year.
In eighteen months, by the summer of 1986, he had the tomato he wanted–a yellow Roma–and enough seed to plant a 100-acre test plot near Modesto.
“It was quite a sight, all the golden and yellow fruit,” he says.
Del Monte processed the tomatoes into paste that fall–a gorgeous golden paste that would make a gorgeous golden ketchup. Rawal had a label designed, a bright, sunshiny label, with yellow edging into orange. All he needed now was the money to produce enough seed for a real crop the next year.
He never got it. That era of junk-bond-built companies like RJR Nabisco was coming to an end and the pieces were coming apart, dealt off as quickly as they were assembled. The Del Monte pineapple business went to the Japanese. A Mexican drug king bought the fresh produce business. The new products committee was disbanded. Within six months, Rawal left the company, packing his expertise off to a new subsidiary of a French cement company that decided it wanted to get into biotech.
That didn’t last either.
So he started a small company called California Hybrids. He was the sole employee. He began another breeding program, this time aimed at something even harder to achieve than yellow ketchup. He wanted to breed tomatoes that taste good.
The Painted Tomato
“Try this.”
Kanti Rawal hands over a tiny yellow gumdrop of a tomato, so small you can pop it in your mouth whole. Bitten, it explodes with an intense sugar-candy sweetness.
“I’m totally surprised when it comes to the flavor of the combinations,” he says.
Then he scurries off to the next row.
It’s more than a decade since the cement boys gave him his walking papers. Rawal has been working with tomatoes, mostly yellow tomatoes, ever since. He has spent the time in places like this, a small test plot in a field outside Gilroy.
“Look,” he says. He plucks a medium-sized orange fruit from the vine. He cuts it open. Its insides are a brilliant crimson, so red it hurts. He looks up, seeking recognition of this marvel, takes a bite, tosses it aside, then bops off to the next row, the next plant, the next taste.
He’s accompanied in the tomato plot–chased, would be closer to it–by Yiran Yu, a geneticist who has made the jump from the science of plants to the science of money. Yu’s become an entrepreneur and is interested in buying some of Rawal’s seeds. The Chinese market beckons. Dr. Yu hasn’t much time. Dr. Rawal has many tomatoes. One more variety he wants Yu to see, to touch, to taste. At one point, Yu sighs and says: “If you’re in a hurry, never go out with a tomato breeder.”
The plot is not much larger than a big suburban backyard. It’s stuffed with more color, shape and size differentiation than you’d see in a supermarket in a decade: tangerine tomatoes, blood red tomatoes, brick reds, lemon yellows, pumpkin oranges, tomatoes the size of softballs, of jellybeans, and everything in between. The tastes are a riot of sweets and sours, no two alike. Cherry tomatoes, Rockys, Sun Drops and Romas.
To think that out of this profuse exuberance, supermarkets sell tomatoes as tame and uniform as the contemporary tomato makes Rawal wonder.
“How can they have no taste at all?” he says.
With the tomato as with many things, the qualities–taste and flavor–that made the thing what it was were lost in the process of improving it. An oft-cited Department of Agriculture consumer survey shows more dissatisfaction with tomatoes than any other food item.
What happened?
There is broad agreement that the answer lies not so much in the tomatoes themselves as in what is done to them. In 1975, researchers at UC Davis demonstrated that spraying green tomatoes with an organic gas, ethylene, makes them turn red. Such tomatoes could then be picked while they were still green (and thus firm enough to withstand the rigors of transport), stored, then gassed red just before delivery to markets.
That is now the predominant means of handling tomatoes. Most tomato scientists think the tomatoes have the same inherent flavor, but it never develops because the fruit is picked before maturity, before crucial flavor chemicals can act.
“Ripening is a sunshine-induced process,” Rawal says. “Gassing won’t do it. We end up with a green tomato that looks red. I call them painted tomatoes. Painted with gas.”
By the end of the day at the test plot, Rawal looks as if he’s been painted. To show you the seeds inside a big beefsteak, he simply crushes it in his hand. His shirt front is splattered with the juice of dozens of tomatoes he has picked, sliced, squeezed and tasted.
Rawal experimented with more than 250 tomato varieties, looking for one that could withstand contemporary practices and recapture the lost flavor.
In the end, he was faced not so much with finding flavor as choosing among many different ones. Almost all of the tomatoes in his plot taste better than any store-bought tomato you’ve eaten in 20 years. As eager and proud as he is about what he is growing, he is suspect of the food industry’s ability to capitalize on it. He has 29 different kinds of tomatoes in this one little plot. A normal supermarket might stock two–red Romas and red beefsteak. They’re bought on price, merely as commodities.
Rawal decided the only way to get his tomatoes to market was to do it himself.
The Biggest Greenhouse
Farmers, who at the drop of a John Deere cap will tell you how much they prize their freedom, are governed by more rigid laws than anyone on earth. Nature knows nothing about clemency or parole. Farmers battle mainly by imposing regimes on the balky land. They call these regimes farms, but out here in the Central Valley they’re very much closer to factories.
To look at this land as it must have looked a century ago and see a great fertile basin would have been lunatic, like landing on the Sea of Tranquillity and saying, “Yes, the sofa goes here.”
The valley is gridded into fields like crossword squares and pancake flat. The dirt-hugging towns are built of cinder block so low to the ground they look like they’re trying to duck the sun, which pours down here in the same way the rain might somewhere else. It has volume and texture and makes your head hurt.
Yet California’s great Central Valley, virtually a desert, has been transformed into an assembly line of food. It is 430 miles long and 75 miles wide and generates more than a quarter of the country’s produce. California’s agricultural output has quintupled in 30 years, doubled just since Rawal started working with tomatoes. It dwarfs that of old Bread Basket states.
Before farming, almost all humans were engaged in the production of food. Now, in an advanced industrial society, almost no one is. In California, the biggest farm state in the biggest farm country, farmers and ranchers comprise less than 1% of the state’s 33 million people.
The sheer volume and variety they produce are incredible: 90% of the nation’s broccoli, Brussels sprouts, celery and nectarines; all of its artichokes, almonds, olives and prunes. There are melons, garlic, lemons, limes and nectarines; onions, bok choy, sweet corn, red peppers, green peppers and alfalfa hay.
“I’m trying to think of what they can’t grow here,” says John Guido, who has been put in charge of growing Kanti Rawal’s tomatoes.
Guido is an unlikely farmer. His big white crew cab Ford, with its laptop and hands-free cell phone, is as much office as transport. Guido is built like an offensive lineman from a small school. At 27, he is rounding and balding all at once. He has sad eyes and a squeaky voice, which has a constant sort of mirth in it, like a guy getting away with something. Which, of course, he is. This isn’t a job, it’s a blast. He eats the dust, smells the fresh-cut hay and cackles at his great fortune.
Guido’s parents were professionals, city people in Monterey. He ended up at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo studying ag business because his best friends went there. And he fell in love with it. Fresh out of school he went to work for a big tomato processor, which is how he and Rawal and a couple of other men became partners.
They never considered planting anywhere but out in the valley. It is, as Rawal says, “a God-made greenhouse.” There is high heat and no rain from April through October, perfect tomato weather. The 30-degree day-to-night temperature swing kills the bugs. The dryness kills the fungi.
The productivity of the place makes the economics crazy. The label on a bottle of ketchup costs as much as the tomatoes inside and the transportation twice that. The people who plant and pick the fruit are paid half what the man who mops the produce aisle makes.
Guido has a crew of 18 pickers working a field full of Rawal’s yellow Romas. They come out early. Layered in fleece and cottons, they look like a track team out for a morning workout. They work two to a row, combing through the plants, picking into 10-gallon buckets. They dump the buckets onto the carpeted trough at the front of a 40-foot-wide platform on wheels, pulled by a tractor. On the platform, luckier workers, in the shade of a canvas awning, sort, clean and pack the fruit straight into cartons for store delivery.
By nightfall, it will be at a wholesale center. It will be on the produce aisle by morning and on the table by dinner.
Guido planted just enough this year to test productivity and market appeal. To hold down costs and determine the tomato’s durability, they handled this year’s crop as if it were headed for a paste plant. As a result, their costs are a third those of other fresh market growers and they’re selling the Romas for triple the market price. Low cost, high price. No wonder Guido is smiling.
They divided the harvest into three parts, sending portions to grocery stores, others off to be dried or diced. The new yellow tomato passed every test. It will be coming soon to a supermarket near you.
They planted 30 acres this year. Next year maybe 500.
At this rate, how far off could yellow ketchup be? Maybe in two years, Rawal says. Then he pauses and grins.
Or maybe never? he’s asked.
Yes, he says, maybe never.
He knows that his is a faint whisper of a dream, maybe even a silly California dream. At this point he doesn’t really care because he has already done something good. He has made a new tomato.