MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
All over the country, backyard gardeners are nurturing tomato seedlings, hoping to cultivate some ripe, red fruit. At a research farm in California, scientists for the Heinz Company are cautiously eyeing their young tomato plants with a more specific goal.
Heinz is trying to breed a sweeter tomato in order to replace some of the corn syrup that's used to sweeten Heinz ketchup.
As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, this project is one response to the soaring price of corn.
SCOTT HORSLEY: The moment you open the door to the Heinz ketchup factory, a sweet, savory smell tips your nose.
Mr. REUBEN PETERSON (Director, H. J. Heinz Company): This is where they actually batch the ketchup - the tomato paste content.
HORSLEY: The tomato paste arrives in 3,000 pound crates, and it's sucked into the cooking apparatus with a vacuum the size of a fire hose. Reuben Peterson is responsible for keeping this place cooking. He is the director of Heinz's global tomato supply chain.
Nearby, a row of machines is squirting ketchup into those tiny packets you get at fast food restaurants. One machine is spitting out packets that say Wienerschnitzel, another is making packets for Jack in the Box.
Mr. PETERSON: Carl's Jr., Burger King, Wendy's, it's all Heinz.
HORSLEY: 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. There's a simple reason, says David Ciesinski, a man with the enviable title: vice president of ketchup.
Mr. DAVID CIESINSKI (Vice President, Heinz Ketchup): The perfect recipe. And the perfect recipe is a manifestation of the perfect tomato.
HORSLEY: Some of the other main ingredients in that recipe are vinegar and high fructose corn syrup, and it's the corn syrup that's creating a headache for Ciesinski as the price of corn has soared. A bushel of corn that cost $2 four years ago cost about $6 today. That's having a ripple effect throughout the grocery store, since corn is a key ingredient in many of the foods we eat. The price of high fructose corn syrup has nearly doubled in the last four years, while ketchup prices are rising much more slowly.
Mr. CEISINSKI: Roughly one-third of the cost that goes into ketchup is tomatoes. The sweetener accounts for about 10 percent of the overall cost of a bottle of ketchup.
HORSLEY: 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, California.
Mr. RICH OZMINKOWSKI (Research Manager, Heinz's Seed-Growing Operation): This is our green house where we're actually producing those new hybrids. The plant that you're looking at is the female parent. The seed inside that fruit is the hybrid seed.
HORSLEY: Rich Ozminkowski is research manager for Heinz's seed-growing operation. The company supply seeds for many of the processing tomatoes grown in California including, some, is by Heinz's ketchup competitors. Producing those hybrid seeds is labor-intensive. Left alone, tomatoes would self pollinate. So, in order to cross two plants, breeders have to cut off the pollen-bearing part of each flower by hand, then dust the flower with pollen from a different plant.
Heinz does it the old-fashioned way, with no genetic engineering. The resulting hybrids are then tested outside on the company's experimental farm. Mechanical fingers press hundreds of seedlings in to the ground as a tractor moves slowly across the field. Numbered stakes identify which tomato parents each seedling comes from. Eventually, there are long lines of stakes, stretching out over 38 acres.
Mr. OZMINKOWSKI: I always think it looks like a little Arlington Cemetery. Everything is lined up all of the little stakes is - and we have about 5,000 different stakes each season that we're planting.
HORSLEY: Ozminkowski and his colleagues picked the most promising offspring, and over several generations, they'll winnow the field to just a handful of varieties that might be grown commercially. Ozminkowski calls the process 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 effort into high gear. Heinz boosted its R and D budget by almost 20 percent last year. It bought more farmland so it can plant more varieties. And it's even built a scale-model ketchup plant so it can test the new tomatoes in tiny batches.
Ozminkowski says the challenge is to increase the tomato sugar content without sacrificing other desirable qualities like color, thickness or yield.
Mr. OZMINKOWSKI: If a grower can't grow it and make a living doing that, there's no point. Similarly, if a factory can't make the product that they need - if it doesn't meet their specifications - there are not going to want a grower to grow it. So, we've got two large customers that we really have to cater to.
HORSLEY: Meanwhile, back at ketchup headquarters in Pittsburgh, David 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.
Mr. CIESINSKI: Here's a picture of Emily putting ketchup on her beans, and her grandmother wrote to tell us that it's only Heinz ketchup that Emily will eat. And I think the key thing is as we go through this sort of work, I always keep an eye on what matters most. 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.
HORSLEY: 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. Rich Ozminkowski says, in words that any home gardener can relate to, there really is no perfect tomato, just a never-ending labor to approach perfection.
Scott Horsley. NPR News.
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