Most people in the food industry know that California is the supermarket to the world, and almost all of the tomatoes in the United States come directly from California. Tomatoes got a bad rap this summer when they were wrongfully blamed for Salmonella outbreaks, but they are slowly gaining back public trust with the help of the Tomato Products Wellness Council (TPWC).
The TPWC invited a group of writers on a tomato “harvest tour” designed to educate non-agricultural types on how a tomato is born. Starting with water and ending with a 40-lb. box of tomato sauce, the tour included details on all of the steps involved in this process.
Stage 1: The Importance of Water
Do you know that it takes over 698 gal. of water to make full hamburger with all the fixings (bread, tomato, cheese, lettuce, burger)? It sounds crazy, but this concept was explained in great detail at the Romero Overlook Visitors Center located at the San Luis Reservoir (eastern foothills of the Diablo mountain range) and represents the amount of water needed to grow or produce each of the individual items that compose the burger!
The rain in California falls mainly in the north, so the California Department of Water Resources delivers water to the rest of the state via the State Water Project (SWP). The SWP utilizes a system of reservoirs, pumping, power plants, pipelines, canals and natural channels to efficiently deliver water to all of the crop-growing areas. Right now, we are in the middle of a serious drought and the water levels are dangerously low.
Stage 2: Mechanical Tomato Harvesting
Following the stream of water directly to the tomato farms, we learned that industrial tomatoes are bred for high solids content with little water to increase yield and flavor. The industrial Roma tomatoes are quite durable. We witnessed a two-story-tall mechanical harvester inhale approximately 220 lbs. of tomatoes a minute. The method seems harsh, as dirt, rocks and other debris are brutally sucked into a harvester and then spit out into a trailer riding alongside the harvester at a 3-mph pace.
Stage 3: Tomato Processing
Thousands of trailers filled with the thick-skinned tomato fruit (or vegetable, as defined by the USDA) work their way to one of several tomato processing plants located in the San Joaquin Valley where random scoops of tomatoes are pulled from the trailer and given a quality grade. The graded tomatoes are then dumped into a water-filled shoot that moves the tomatoes toward their final paste or diced destination. An electronic eye sorts the tomatoes, pushing the red ones in the diced direction and the not-quite-so-red ones toward paste. The diced tomatoes are peeled, heated to over 200ºF and filled into sterile 3,000-lb. boxes. The paste-destined tomatoes go through a much-harsher process involving evaporators and cooling pipes, getting rid of just enough water to leave a tomato paste with total solids measuring around 26 to 31%.
In an effort to meet the upscale demands of their U.S. customers, tomato processing plants can also produce a fire-roasted tomato, which is crushed, canned and subsequently used to make fire-roasted salsas. Unpeeled tomatoes float down a conveyer belt and go right through intense flames, coming out the other end blackened and charred. The tomatoes are then crushed, sterilized, packaged and sold as fire-roasted tomatoes. This extra step is expensive, but contains the desired charred flavor that only the burned vegetable skin can produce.
Stage 4: Final Tomato Product Manufacturing
Final tomato products, such as marinara and pizza sauce, can be made in two ways. They are either made via the fresh-pack method, or the “remanufactured” process. Fresh-pack tomatoes go directly from the fields, into the can, and into the store. They are cooked one time, at a time/temperature plan to prevent any spoilage-organism opportunities, while the hardcore pathogens are kept at bay via the product pH, always maintained well below 4.6. Remanufactured tomato products go from the field to the tomato processing facility, and are then sold as sterile tomato paste and diced, directly to manufacturers. The sterile tomato products are poured into 10,000-gal. tanks, along with herbs, spices and other sauce ingredients, and reheated to a predetermined time/temperature high enough to prevent spoilage outbreak.
Stage 5: Final Product Testing
All final sauce products are subjected to a series of tests that are used to confirm that the sauce product is within a specification range predetermined for a particular sauce product. Tests measurements include salt, acid, soluble solids (measured as Brix), viscosity (measured by a Bostwick unit), particulate count, particulate percentage and color. If the product is not within its appropriate range, the batch is adjusted and retested until it comes out right.
The tomato sauce that has passed all tests is manufactured, packed in 40-lb. cases and shipped off to customers, like pizza companies, all over the United States.
Then we have the easy part—eating the pizza.