(June 30) A proposed rule change by the U.S. Department of Agriculture could allow Procacci Bros. Sales Corp. to ship its UglyRipe heirloom tomatoes out of Florida during the critical winter window.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service on June 29 announced it would accept comments until Aug. 28 on exempting UglyRipe tomatoes from the shape requirements associated with the U.S. No. 2 grade. The grade is required under the federal marketing order of all mature-green tomatoes leaving Florida’s main tomato production area.

The proposal doesn’t specifically name Philadelphia-based Procacci Bros Sales Corp., which from 2000-03 shipped the misshapen and wrinkled tomatoes from Plant City, Fla.-based Ag-Mart Inc., which does business as Santa Sweets Inc.

The Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee regulates quality standards and container sizes of mature-green tomatoes shipped out of Florida during the Oct. 10 to June 15 marketing period.
Though the proposal provides a partial exemption from the grade’s shape requirements, the UglyRipes would have to meet other grade rules, according to the USDA. Other rules include maturity, size and quality requirements.

After three years of fighting the Florida industry for additional certificates of privilege exempting his tomatoes from the committee’s shape regulations, Joseph Procacci, Procacci’s chief executive officer who owns Ag-Mart and Procacci Bros., said he’s confident the proposed rule will be approved and will solve the issue.

“It has been very hard with that tomato committee,” he said. “It’s a shame we had to go through this process. There’s a reason for it, they’re all our competitors. After three years, when they saw the demand for these tomatoes, most of them voted against us.”

The last vote occurred during a USDA-requested April 19 committee meeting where five of the nine committee board members that were present sided with Procacci. The vote failed, however, because the motion required a supermajority — eight votes — of the committee’s 12 members, Procacci said.

Tony DiMare, committee board member and vice president of DiMare Ruskin Inc., Ruskin, Fla., disputed Procacci’s assertions that the committee prohibited Procacci’s UglyRipe tomatoes from being sold outside Florida during the winter. He also disputed that competing shippers claimed the misshapen tomatoes would damage Florida’s marketplace reputation.

“The committee has only said that the tomato meet all minimum requirements of the marketing order, which has been in place long before the UglyRipe’s existence,” DiMare said. “All foreign and domestic tomato producers are required to pack to the minimum grade and size standards.”

USDA to rule whether UglyRipes make grade
A proposed grade change would allow shipping of UglyRipe tomatoes out of Florida during the winter.