AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Ketchup is the all-American condiment, essential at any cookout, right? Well, deep inside the company that dominates the ketchup business, there is a man who's making sure you always get exactly the taste you expect - the ketchup master. NPR's Dan Charles has our report.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: I was visiting a tomato field near Los Banos, Calif., with Ross Siragusa, the head of global agriculture for the Kraft Heinz Company. The field was covered with a thick carpet of green tomato vines.
ROSS SIRAGUSA: So you pull them up, and you can start seeing what they look like.
CHARLES: Wow, look at this.
Tomatoes everywhere - too many to count. Siragusa explains this is a special mix of tomato varieties - one super-red, one super-dense - to make thick, red sauce, which has always been the selling point for Heinz Ketchup - thick and red. But I asked Siragusa, what about taste? Has that changed over the years? And he says, I don't know, but I know somebody who would - Hector Osorno.
SIRAGUSA: He's completely obsessed, and he'll admit to it. He's got secrets that he won't divulge.
CHARLES: He won't? Not even to me?
SIRAGUSA: No, I don't think so.
CHARLES: Hector Osorno is the ketchup master, the guy making sure that Heinz Ketchup comes out exactly as advertised.
What is it that makes you a ketchup master? Is it your skill, your knowledge?
HECTOR OSORNO: I like to think that it's my skill and probably my stubbornness more than anything else.
CHARLES: Your stubbornness?
OSORNO: Stubbornness, yes. I'm obsessive to do the right thing the first time.
CHARLES: He grew up in Mexico, became an engineer. More than 20 years ago, he got assigned to help redesign a Heinz tomato processing factory in Canada, and it's been all ketchup all the time ever since. There's a lot to keep track of with ketchup. Years ago, there were some old-timers at Heinz who thought the taste of their product was shifting a little.
OSORNO: They'd detected that something was beginning to change, and they adjusted accordingly.
CHARLES: But that's a secret exactly what they did?
CHARLES: Of course he won't tell me.
OSORNO: For that, I'd need a letter from the president of the company cosigned by the legal counsel.
CHARLES: For some people, ketchup's a symbol of the problems with American food. It's mass-produced, full of sugar. Historian Gabriella Petrick saw it that way when she started digging into the files at the Heinz Company archives.
GABRIELLA PETRICK: I was going to show how awful Americans eat and how terrible industrial food was.
CHARLES: When Henry Heinz started his company in the late 1800s, there were all kinds of ketchup. There was walnut ketchup, grape ketchup. But over time, Heinz's version of tomato ketchup just took over.
PETRICK: The company crafted a very particular product that now reshapes what we think about as ketchup.
CHARLES: You couldn't make this ketchup yourself. Maybe you didn't really want to make it yourself.
PETRICK: Because women used to make ketchup at home - why make watery ketchup when you can simply buy my high-quality, super-thick ketchup?
CHARLES: Maybe you can tell Petrick is not so judgy (ph) about industrial foods anymore.
PETRICK: A lot of these products - I've just learned to understand how important they were to people's lives and how they made their lives, women's lives in particular, easier.
OSORNO: This is the traditional way that ketchup was made. This is the beginning.
CHARLES: The Heinz Company, now Kraft Heinz, has two giant ketchup factories in the U.S. in Ohio and in Iowa. But here in Los Banos, where the tomatoes grow, Hector Osorno has set up a miniature version, just a room where he can test new tomato varieties, see what kind of paste they make. Or he can check the quality of the tomato paste that the company's big factories are using.
OSORNO: If we detect something that they didn't, we immediately notify them.
CHARLES: So every day you're making a fresh batch.
OSORNO: Every day, I'm making 18 batches of ketchup.
CHARLES: Eighteen batches?
CHARLES: He's checking the ketchup so you don't have to.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.