Prized ingredient

I’m from New Jersey—the Garden State—famous for its tomatoes. But to be honest, I had never been anywhere near a tomato field until I made the trek to the Davis, Calif. area to take a ride on a tomato harvester and tour a Campbell tomato processing facility. It was an eye-opening experience to see a tomato go from the field to tomato paste in a matter of hours.

The visit coincided with the rollout of a retooled version of Campbell’s Tomato soup, which now has 480 mg. of sodium per serving, a 32% reduction. The recipe for the iconic soup has only been tinkered with slightly since its introduction in 1897, according to company officials.

“We hope it’s the biggest change you never notice,” Denise Morrison, president, Campbell North America, told the gathering. She said more than 25 million Americans enjoy the soup each week and the tomato variety accounts for 16% of the Camden, N.J.-based company’s condensed soup volume.

While it is proud of the work that has gone into lowering the sodium content of the soups, she said the company won’t be putting a “lower sodium” banner on the can. “We want this to be something that is seen as very normal,” she said. “While introducing one of our top-selling soups with less salt is a milestone, we view it as a continuation of our sodium reduction journey.”

Morrison pointed out that Campbell has more than 100 products with less than 480 mg. of sodium, which is the healthy level of sodium designated by the U.S. government. Campbell was cautious about reformulating such a well-known brand, Morrison said, and conducted taste tests in all 50 states. “We were concerned about replicating the same exact great taste, but we did it and in fact nine out of 10 people said they would buy Campbell’s Tomato soup as much or more often after tasting the new version,” she said.

The company wanted to put the spotlight on local tomato farmers in conjunction with the announcement of the lower-sodium formulation, she said, “because the secret ingredient, in addition to the touch of love that goes into every can, is the tomato.”

Campbell coordinates with farmers to grow more than 800,000 tons of tomatoes each year, according to Tim Gruenwald, Campbell’s director of agriculture. “It really is like a ballet to get all of the tomatoes planted, harvested and processed with perfect timing,” he said. While the growing season is typically 140 to 150 days, it is a year-round operation to ensure that there are enough quality tomatoes to meet demand.

Each tomato plant starts with seeds that are developed by Campbell at its Agricultural Research Center in Davis, Calif., where the company tests 300 to 500 tomato varieties each year, with perhaps one new variety each year going into production, according to Hasan Bolkan, director of vegetable research and development. He said the company’s research helps growers deliver better-tasting tomatoes with less fertilizer and water.

Using Campbell’s proprietary seeds, the plants are cultivated in a greenhouse from December until June, when they reach a height of six to eight inches. At that point, they go into the field, where they are harvested from July through October.

Harvesting is a high-tech operation. The tomato harvester scoops up the tomatoes from the field. The color of each tomato is “read” by a machine and green tomatoes are rejected. Radio frequency technology helps to track the tomatoes to ensure quality and food safety standards.

Once a truckload of tomatoes that meets Campbell standards is gathered, it is hauled a few miles down the road to a state-of-the-art processing facility, where it is turned into tomato paste within four to six hours of harvesting.

The paste is then put into 555-gallon drums and shipped to various Campbell factories, where it is turned into soup, sauces and salsa. 

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