(Sept. 29) While some Florida grower-shippers disagreed, consumers, retailers and others expressed support to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on forcing the Florida Tomato Committee to allow Ugly Ripe tomato shipments out of Florida.

The comments came on a proposal to exempt Ugly Ripe tomatoes from the federal marketing order’s U.S. No. 2 grade requirements for all mature-green tomatoes leaving Florida’s main tomato production area. Florida’s tomato season starts Oct. 10.

Joseph Procacci, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., Philadelphia, persuaded the USDA to consider changing the marketing order’s rules after members of the committee repeatedly voted against providing him certificates of privilege to ship his tomatoes outside of the committee’s shape regulations.

Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange’s executive vice president and committee manager Reggie Brown in written comments urged the USDA to reconsider and withdraw its proposal. He said the petitioner hasn’t exhausted his administrative remedies.

Because most of Florida’s tomato handlers and producers can be classified as small entities, Brown said the proposed rule won’t help Florida’s tomato industry meet domestic market needs and could harm Florida’s growers and handlers who have suffered from wild price variations.

The proposal, he said, “is fundamentally unfair because the action assists a single large corporation to the detriment of many small businesses” and will hurt other shippers who can’t afford to develop a tomato similar to the Ugly Ripe.

“To allow the owner of one variety to sell all his tomatoes and not exclude those that fail to make the grade is to punish the growers and packers of other unique or special varieties who must abide by the marketing order,” Brown wrote. “This does not make for orderly marketing, the bedrock of all marketing orders.”

Brown and others pointed to an independent study conducted during the three years that Procacci was allowed to ship the misshapen tomatoes that showed 73% of the Ugly Ripes met the No. 2 or better grade.

Granting an exemption would create a loophole that will allow Ugly Ripes and other varieties to circumvent the marketing order, said Tony DiMare, exchange president and vice president of DiMare Ruskin Inc.

“We as growers grow varieties that are flat in shape, elongated in shape, ridged (in) shoulder, but yet, we still adhere to the minimum grade requirements without protest,” he wrote. “The Ugly Ripe is just another tomato type and should adhere to the same guidelines.”

Retailers that commented supported the rule change.

“They (Ugly Ripes) are a different tomato and shouldn’t fall victim to old rules for round tomatoes,” wrote Reggie Griffin, vice president of produce and floral for the Cincinnati-based The Kroger Co.

Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of perishables for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., in his letter said the chain supports changing the rule so it can serve customers interested in buying the tomato throughout the year.

“We also feel it’s good for the state of Florida to be able to give consumers the opportunity to add to their choices to purchase other products produced in that state,” he said. “We feel that it in no way would compromise existing product that is currently being offered. The Ugly Ripe tomato is a compliment to existing product, not a deterrent.”

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson asked the USDA to not change the marketing order.

Procacci in a statement noted that only nine of the 87 comments opposed the rule change. Procacci characterized the opposing comments as “submitted entirely by competing growers or bureaucrats arguing technicalities which company officials view as a thinly veiled attempt to stifle the free market demand for an innovative and superior-tasting product.