Ketchup Diplomacy in Red China

Checking out the country’s booming tomato business.

A Chinese vendor sells tomatoes to customers

BEIJING—It may have been during our visit to the Laoshe Teahouse, a glitzy tourist trap off Tiananmen Square, that I realized how hard our Chinese hosts were trying to please us. It wasn’t just the floor show—two country boys imitating jet planes, a tubby dancer “balancing porcelaneous flower jug on head and throw it in the ambience of the evening,” and of course the fabulous “face smearing of the Sichuan opera also called blow facing!”

No, the really thoughtful touch was the chow waiting for us as we entered the restaurant: bags of congealed KFC french fries, with ketchup. Lots and lots of ketchup, in little foil-wrapped Heinz packets. There was a good reason for all that seasoning.  I was with 44 other foreigners, most of them tomato farmers, canners, and food processors, who had come to China on a tour with the World Processing Tomato Council.

China, it turns out, now grows more tomatoes for processing—the kind that get turned into ketchup, pasta sauce, salsa—than any place in the world besides California, and maybe Italy. The precipitous rise of the country’s tomato industry, which scarcely existed a decade ago, is wreaking some havoc. The Senegalese claim that cheap Chinese tomato paste is driving farmers off the land. Turks, Aussies, and Russians have similar complaints. The Italians are especially unhappy: The Silk Road over which Marco Polo brought home the pasta has turned into a pipeline of cheap tomato paste. “The phenomenon of Chinese tomato paste is grave and preoccupying,” Calabrian newspaper Gazzetta del Sud opined recently.

The story of how China’s tomato industry grew surely must rank as one of the weirdest of the country’s economic boom. To begin with, the Chinese themselves shun tomatoes.  In China, about the only way you can get a person to eat a tomato is by slicing it and liberally sprinkling sugar over each slice. After the Spanish Conquest, peppers and sweet potatoes became firmly entrenched in the Chinese diet. But the tomato found no home here. We say tomato; they say “foreign eggplant” (fan qie, in Mandarin, anyway).

Nevertheless, in 1993, a private domestic company called Tunhe decided to start growing tomatoes in China’s arid western highlands, an area studded with camel herds, yurts, oil derricks, and ancient underground irrigation systems.

Most of the tomatoes are grown in the province of Xinjiang, an ancient, landlocked crossroads on the Silk Road where many of the natives are Kazakhs, Uyghurs, or members of various Muslim ethnic groups. A few years ago, Tunhe went flamboyantly bankrupt and was taken over by a Chinese state-run food conglomerate, Cofco. Its chief competitor in the tomato business is the Chinese army. The army’s Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps is a shadow power in the province and has about 1 million employees.

The XPCC was established in the 1950s to create work for the thousands of soldiers and ex-convicts who had been sent to the region to Sinocize it and keep an eye on the Soviets and ethnic minorities.

The point of growing all these tomatoes in Xinjiang—as well as in Inner Mongolia and Gansu province—was not so much to secure vital spaghetti Bolognese resources for China, as it was to create jobs for some of the Han Chinese sent to the region during the heroic age of Chinese communism.

The XPCC’s tomato-producing affiliate and Cofco Tunhe have given small plots of land to tens of thousands of tomato farmers. At harvest, the tomatoes are collected in gunnysacks, dumped into trailers, and driven by truck, motorcycle, and even donkey cart to ultramodern, Italian-designed tomato processing factories. There, using the standard method for creating industrial tomato paste, most of the tomatoes are heated to about 200 degrees, which causes them to blow up. The resulting paste is partially evaporated and flows into sterile drums. The drums go by rail across the country to the east coast and are shipped around the world.

On my tour, some of the visiting tomatoistas were looking for business opportunities. All were gathering intelligence as to how serious a threat China’s tomatoes were to enterprises back home, where in some cases tomato-growing is not only a business but a way of life. The Chinese were sensitive to these tensions and sought to reassure their guests that they were really enthusiastic about tomatoes, too, and not just for the money. At a symposium in Beijing, Ning Gaoning, the president of Cofco, offered the following happy explanation: “Tomato is such a beautiful fruit,” he said. “It brings us taste and nutrition and health, and also it brings us business. It is a foreign thing. But it is more and more an important thing in the ‘New Socialistic Countryside.’ ” Speeches like Ning’s would be punctuated, during the tour, with the plinking of glasses of Chinese plonk (Cofco’s Great Wall wine) and of the sickeningly sweet Cofco-brand tomato juice. And of course by lots of ketchup.

From the foreign side, one heard expressions of worry, amusement, schadenfreude, and paternalism. At a banquet, a European tomato processor rose to toast the Chinese and then gently chided them for dumping their products in overseas markets. The Cofco employee who interpreted this speech for the dignitaries on hand (including the governor of Xinjiang) excised all except for the cheerful banalities. “China is getting freer,” the interpreter told me later, “but it isn’t totally free.”

Some Italians are especially worked up over what they view as a Faustian bargain their industry made here. In the 1990s, searching for cheap product for their export markets, Italian companies began setting up tomato-processing plants in China to provide paste, which Italian canners repackaged, slapped with  “Made in Italy” stickers, and shipped to Africa. Soon, though, the Chinese figured out a way to market their paste directly to the Africans and began selling it in Europe as well. In 2002, customs agents seized 160 tons of rotting, worm-infested Chinese paste at the Italian port of Bari. Much to their horror, Italian consumers soon learned that some of the paste on their shelves had come from China, where, as it was pointed out, there were lax controls on sanitation, pesticides, and heavy-metal contamination. “Italy—Invaded by Chinese tomatoes!” screamed a Corriere della Sera article in 2005. That year, Italian tomatoes rotted in the fields because Chinese paste imports had lowered the price so far that the Italian tomatoes were no longer worth harvesting.

This is where ketchup diplomacy comes in. Eager to assure their foreign guests that Chinese tomato production was not growing at the expense of foreign producers, the Chinese stressed that their young people consume more tomatoes all the time—in the form of pizza sauce or ketchup on fries and burgers, at the 3,000 or so fast food emporiums that have opened in China over the past couple of decades.

This junk food explosion, and the recognition that China is starting to have an obesity problem, however, seemed slightly at odds with the marketing pitch. Processed tomatoes are, in fact, good for you—full of lycopene and other molecules that may help prevent cancer and heart disease. But it kind of depends on how you eat them.

“So the way to save the world’s tomato industry is by getting the Chinese to eat more junk food?” I whispered to the representative of a major food processing company.

 “You weren’t supposed to notice that,” she responded.

What of the quality of the Chinese produce? The consensus seemed to be that while China was doing a plausible job making tomato paste, it had a ways to go. Juan Jose Amezaga, a handsome, chain-smoking, hyperkinetic Spanish tomato consultant, rushed around the factories, identifying the weak spots. (Late blight! Rust in the trucks! Tomatoes rotting as farmers wait for hours to enter the cannery!)

“A sheety tomato is a sheety tomato,” he was heard to say.

Amezaga wasn’t the only one with doubts. Tomatoes are very difficult to keep pest-free, and in some of the Xinjiang fields, the visitors observed varieties of mold and viral infections they didn’t even recognize. Jim Beecher, a hale and hearty Fresno farmer, stooped over a patch of moldy, black-spotted tomatoes and calculated that where his California fields might average 40 tons per acre, these were producing barely half that yield. His expression was one of relief.

While free land and cheap labor give China advantages, tomatoes are a finicky fruit, and tomato production a tricky business. A month ago, word arrived that China had lost nearly a quarter of its tomato crop. The cause? You guessed it: mold in Inner Mongolia.