All over the country, backyard gardeners are nurturing tomato seedlings, hoping to have some ripe, red fruit in time for their summer barbecues.
At a research farm in California, scientists for H.J. Heinz Co. are also cautiously eyeing their young tomato plants. Their goal, however, is a little more specific.
Heinz is trying to breed a sweeter tomato in order to cut down on the costly corn syrup now used in its ketchup. It's one response to the soaring price of corn, caused in part by the ethanol boom.
A Ripple Effect
Every minute, a Heinz factory in central California makes thousands of the tiny ketchup packets available in fast food restaurants. Some of the packets bear the label of the Wienerschnitzel hot dog chain. Others say Jack in the Box.
"Carl's Jr., Burger King, Wendy's. It's all Heinz," says Reuben Peterson, director of Heinz's global tomato supply chain.
Heinz is just as dominant at home. Ninety-seven percent of all the households in America have a bottle of ketchup in the kitchen, and about half those bottles are Heinz. The company gives a simple explanation for its commanding market share.
"The perfect recipe," says David Ciesinski, whose business card reads, "Vice President, Ketchup."
In addition to tomatoes, that recipe includes distilled vinegar, spices and high fructose corn syrup. It's the corn syrup that's creating a headache for Ciesinski. A bushel of corn that cost just over $2 four years ago costs nearly $6 today.
That is having a ripple effect throughout the grocery store, because corn is a key ingredient in many of the foods we eat. The price of high fructose corn syrup has nearly doubled in the past four years, while ketchup prices are rising much more slowly.
"The sweetener accounts for about l0 percent of the overall cost of a bottle of ketchup," Ciesinski says.
Heinz figures it could save money on corn sweetener if it could grow tomatoes with more natural sugars. The seeds of that effort are now taking root at the company's research center in Stockton, Calif.
Breeding a Sweeter Tomato
The center supplies seeds for many of the processed tomatoes grown in California, including some used by Heinz's ketchup competitors.
Heinz does it the old-fashioned way, with no genetic engineering. Instead, breeders go through the labor-intensive process of producing hybrid seeds. Left alone, tomatoes would self-pollinate, so in order to cross two plants, breeders have to cut off the pollen-bearing part of one flower by hand, then dust the flower with pollen from a different plant. The resulting seeds are then tested outside on Heinz's experimental farm.
"I always think it looks like a little Arlington Cemetery," says Rich Ozminkowski, agricultural research manager for Heinz's seed-growing operation, pointing to the long straight rows of plant stakes that help identify each group of seedlings.
Each year, Ozminkowski and his colleagues pick the most promising offspring. Over several generations, they'll winnow the field to just a handful of varieties that might be grown commercially, a process Ozminkowski calls "controlled evolution."
Heinz has been cross-breeding tomatoes for years to produce plants that are more productive or disease-resistant. But the search for a sweeter tomato has shifted the cross-breeding effort into high gear. Heinz boosted its research and development budget by almost 20 percent last year. It bought more farmland so it can plant more varieties. And it even built a scale-model ketchup plant so it can test the new tomatoes in tiny batches.
The challenge is to increase the tomato's sugar content without sacrificing other desirable qualities, like color, thickness and yield.
"If a grower can't grow it and make a living doing that, there's no point," Ozminkowski says. "Similarly, if a factory can't make the product they need, if it doesn't make their specifications, they're not going to want a grower to grow it. So we've got two large customers that we really have to cater to."
Getting It Right
Back at ketchup headquarters in Pittsburgh, Ciesinski is thinking of Heinz's other customers. The wall outside his office is papered with letters and photos from ketchup lovers like Emily Russi in Colorado.
"Here's a picture of Emily putting ketchup on her beans, and her grandmother wrote to tell us it's only Heinz ketchup that Emily will eat," Ciesinski says. "If we don't get the recipe right, if it isn't thick enough, if the taste isn't right, it doesn't matter what sort of cost savings we provide. It all blows up."
If Heinz succeeds in breeding a sweeter tomato, it won't share those seeds with its competitors, but instead will keep the savings for itself — at least until something better comes along.
There really is no perfect tomato, Ozminkowski says, in words that any home gardener can relate to -– just a never-ending labor to approach perfection.