Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ketchup and the Future of GM Food

It's 3 am local time and I'm wide awake, fixated on the challenge of brand differentiation in ketchup...

I recently spoke with one of the ketchup tomato breeders I know. Among other topics, he lamented the consumer's irrational fixation on price. He pointed out that most of us won't hesitate to grab a generic bottle of ketchup over a trusted brand for a difference of only 20 cents - which breaks down to no difference over the months it sits in your fridge: How do you sell a better product to a customer who's not willing to pay 1 cent more per week?

It's the advantage (and burden) of major brands that they specialize in making a high-quality, consistent product over years and decades. (If there was an outbreak of botulism in a Campbell's or Del Monte, would you ever buy that brand again?) Meanwhile, generic food companies can just grab whatever ingredients are cheapest at the moment, throw them together and ship them out. A less than ideal batch may sneak its way into various supermarket generics once in awhile, but even if one generic brand gets associated with poor quality, they can just come up with a new (equally generic sounding) name. So how can a branded food company make a profit when they have to put all this extra effort into product quality and consumers nonetheless treat it like a commodity? And, of course, it doesn't help when consumers perceive your product as a low-rent item in the first place...

This probably sounds like a "who cares? / too bad for them" type of problem but it has repercussions outside of the ketchup game. People have the same attitude towards all products - including fresh fruits and vegetables. Now I, as I imagine many of you would, quickly protested this idea. Unlike ketchups, I perceive huge difference between "high" and "low" quality apples and oranges. I won't touch anything that looks like a Red Delicious and I don't even buy tangerines (let alone oranges) unless they're specifically labelled as clementines.** He took my point and then asked if I cared what variety my apple was (so long as it exceeded my stated threshold). I said "no" and he elaborated on the problem - that although I have a threshold for apple quality, the likelihood of the apple product I would buy on a given week (or whether I'd buy apples at all) was very strongly linked to what was on sale at the time.

So how does all this relate to transgenic food? People like myself have been flogging the idea that the public resistance to transgenic food is due in part to the lack of a consumer benefit - all the traits so far benefit the farmer (by yield, convenience and lower risk). This will all change, so the story goes, when transgenic Botrytis-proof strawberries hit the supermarket shelves. "Ah!," the customer will shout, "Look at these beautiful strawberries surrounded by ones gray with mold!" This only works though if customers are really dedicated to buying strawberries when they head to the supermarket. If instead the customer doesn't really care whether he can get strawberries on any given day, he just won't buy strawberries on the days when the choice is between gross molded "generics" and expensive transgenics.*** Maybe he can just buy strawberries another day.

The breeder definitely had a point, but I immediately brought up the hordes of people I know who gladly hand over extra cash to get perceived superior quality (or merely philosophy) from the Trader Joe's and Whole Foods of the world. But, he emphasized, these are the same people who are most opposed to GM foods.

It was a disheartening series of arguments. Though, of course, if you can find a way to make a consistent profit branding something as ordinary as ketchup, it seems like there should be a place for a slightly more expensive fresh market (out of season) tomato that still tastes like a tomato...

* "Food" brands that are actually vertically integrated enough to do their own breeding include Campbell's, ConAgra (Hunt's), Heinz, Land'O Lakes, Frito-Lay and Orville Redenbacker. 
** Well, when I'm too far from the West Coast, that is.
*** Although a difference in price will be less inevitable if regulations get pared back


  1. Interesting series of disheartening arguments. But way back in the mists of time, people in the UK were glad to pay more for tomato paste made from GM tomatoes. Why?

  2. What are you referring to? The only transgenic tomato I'm aware of was the fresh market Flavr Savr.

  3. Mat - I think you may be too focused on the U.S. food system. We have created an industrial food system that does a good job at growing fungible inputs which are processed, standardized and branded. Generic brands are somewhat cheaper, and consumers respond to price point. On the other hand you may be interested in customer values and IP regimes other than trademark/patent & price.

    As one example, the EU has the Protected Geographical Status ( In this case the name that is protected is not a company name, but a region or process for a particular genome of fruit/veggie or cheese/sausage etc. What I like about this IP regime is that it explicitly takes into account many non-human actors. For example, " To qualify as Roquefort, for example, cheese must be made from milk of a certain breed of sheep, and matured in the natural caves near the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the Aveyron region of France, where it is infected with the spores of a fungus (Penicillium roqueforti) that grows in these caves." This IP regime protects a "standard" process, but also preserves genetic diversity and informally protects culinary tradition and landscapes required to make those foods. You don't HAVE to make cheese this way, you can make velveeta-like industrial cheese, you just can't call it "Roquefort".

    The U.S. is not a signatory to this legal framework, which is a shame because it would give us another tool for creating food that is standardized, labeled and protected, protects a range of human and non-human interests. This framework inherently privileges tradition and localization of food systems, whereas our national-processed-branded food system supported by trademark/patent IP priveleges larger processing companies and secrecy.

    For example, the Coke formula is CBI, but under the PDO IP regime you HAVE to explicitly describe how the cheese/sausage/beer is made in order to get approved. You can see how different these regimes are...

    I would think given enough wealth and time the current consumers of Whole Foods et al. would aspire to this kind of food system for the U.S. but we have to work within the constraints we currently have, so many are moving over to Farmers Markets where they are sprouting up again.

    Now your interest may be: could one create a GMO with PDO status? A transgenic plant customized for a particular ecoregion that is good for farmer, eater and the non-humans involved in the food production process.....maybe in America. But that would require a change in thinking about how and why transgenic plants are created. So far transgenic plants in the U.S. are primarily field crops, that are fungible and are processed into other things (i.e. BT & Round up Ready Corny, Soy Cotton....)

    And because the U.S. is large the emphasis on national rather than regional or local feedback loops, and there is a major disconnect between food production, processing and consumption...but I would be very interested in hearing more...

  4. Yeah, that's a good contrast to draw attention to. It really all comes down to marketing in the U.S., with no good way to tell which products that claim a certain quality or philosophy really back it up. It's ironic that some of our brands that are considered to be the highest quality are actually the lowest - but spend lots on marketing to make it appear otherwise. I can definitely see the advantage protected statuses, though I also doubt it'll come to the U.S. anytime soon.

  5. I know I'm completely missing the point of your argument, but I found some no sugar fancy ketchup at the natural foods grocery near us (Earthfare) that I love. I was annoyed that Heinz and other brands were playing up the fact that they had a variety made without HFCS - but it STILL had sugar in it - not HFCS, but sugar nonetheless. So then I found this brand with no sugar at all and it's delicious. And I would be willing to pay more for it (well, in fact I *know* I paid more for it).

    And I'd definitely be willing to pay more for fruit that doesn't go bad as quickly. A few weeks ago I had 3 peaches sitting on my kitchen counter that went from pleasantly ripe to completely molded in the 8 hours I was at work. And this was in a temperature controlled kitchen set at 72 degrees, with the blinds drawn.

  6. huh, that's really something - was it noticeably less sweet? did it still taste like ketchup?

    its crazy the peaches went moldy that fast - especially they probably weren't even ripe in the first place:p I just bought some plums because all the grocery store peaches were rock hard - but even though the plums are soft and bright red/purple on the inside, they have no flavor.

  7. The ketchup wasn't noticeably less sweet, no. And it does still taste ketchup-y. Even Joe uses it instead of the Heinz.

    And for the peaches, to be fair, they were from the local farmer's market. And the ones I ate before they got moldy were amazing.

  8. Huh, that's pretty cool.

    I'm glad the peaches were good before they went bad. I guess you're right near the heart of peach country where you are, so i guess they ought to be! I have yet to even find a farmer's market here. i should probably get on it...



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