Florida Tomato Industry Makes Health Pitch

Florida tomato growers are rolling out their first national ad campaign. The state produces almost all of the fresh tomatoes grown in the United States from December to May. But hurricanes have ruined crops, playing havoc with prices. Valerie Alker of member station WGCU reports.

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Milk producers do it. So do cattle ranchers. Florida orange growers have done it for decades: promoted their products on national television. After a couple of touch hurricane seasons, Florida tomato growers are getting into the act. The half billion dollar industry kicks off an ad campaign Monday. Valerie Alker of member station WGCU in Fort Myers reports.

VALERIE ALKER reporting:

A truckload of field tomatoes, 20,000 pounds worth, is completing its run through the Gargiulo packing plant in North Naples. Jim Nance, who's the plant' operations director, Gargiulo grows and ships about 150 million pounds of tomatoes during the winter season. Half the nation's fresh market tomatoes are grown in the sunshine state.

Mr. JIM NANCE (Operations Director, Gargiulo plant) Here you are at the end, and now you have a 25 pound box of fresh market tomatoes fresh from Florida. Ready for consumers to put back in their salads as they should have been able to earlier this year.

ALKER: The season got off to a late start this fall. Hurricane Wilma destroyed about half the first harvest when it ripped though fields in South Florida in late October. Since then, supply has been low, and prices have been high. Some restaurants have stopped serving fresh tomatoes, and they've been available by request only at Wendy's. Some consumers, like Kathleen Mitchell of Punta Gorda, have put their purchases on hold.

Ms. KATHLEEN MITCHELL: We usually buy them from the little flea market, and they've been much smaller in the last couple of months, and much more expensive. We're waiting for this new crop to come out they're talking about.

ALKER: The new crop, planted after Hurricane Wilma, will be ready for harvest in about two weeks. In order to let consumers know tomatoes are once more available in abundance, growers have launched a national advertising campaign.

Unidentified Announcer: A whole tomato contains only five grams of carbs, no cholesterol, and was once thought to be an aphrodesiac. Fresh Florida tomatoes. You're into that, aren't you?

ALKER: The four 15 second spots are airing on cable channels that include the Food Network and HGTV. They're aimed at women, age 25 to 54. Samantha Winters is Marketing Director for the Florida Tomato Committee.

Ms. SAMANTHA WINTERS (Marketing Director, Florida Tomato Committee): We understand from various consumer research that people are motivated by health when making purchases, and we know that, specifically, this is the case with tomatoes. So, these commercials really hit on the health message, as well as flavor and a handling message as well.

ALKER: Florida tomatoes have been described as tasting bland at best. Not nearly as good as home grown. But Winters says that's a result of poor handling after they've been bought. Tomatoes, she says, should be stored at room temperature.

WINTERS: We know that 77 percent of people do put tomatoes in the refrigerator, and this is a problem, because it kills the flavor enzyme, and it also makes the tomato mealy, the texture changes to something that is not pleasing.

ALKER: As for price, right now, Florida tomatoes are selling for about $3.49 a pound. Once the new crop is in and shipped out, it could sell for about half that. The advertising campaign will continue to the first week of April. For NPR News, I'm Valeria Alker in Fort Myers, Florida.

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