【Opinion】 Behind the ¥80 canned tomatoes (Feb. 16, 2016)

Senior special writer, Masaru Yamada

The other day, I saw extremely cheap Italy-made cans of tomatoes sold at a supermarket in my neighborhood. The 400 gram cans were priced around ¥80 each. I bought them, opened them at home and found a couple of cylinder-shaped tomatoes packed in tomato juice. I said to my colleagues that I was shocked by the low price, and was told that it is “something quite ordinary.” Indeed, it looks like canned tomatoes are available at such prices at most online shopping sites.

Imports of processed tomatoes — whole tomatoes and crushed ones, no sugar added — totaled 98,000 tons last year, amounting to ¥10.5 billion in value. More than 90 percent of the imports are from Italy. This is equivalent to ¥114 per kilogram. The cost of importing a 400 gram can would be about ¥50, so it would be technically possible to recover the cost plus the tariff of nearly 8 percent even if the cans are sold at ¥80 each.

However, looking at the solidly filled cans, I cannot help thinking why they are so cheap. According to Takashi Tsutsumi , senior managing director of Japan Tomato Processors Association, such low-priced cans are what are called “unlabeled cans” in Italy. Such unlabeled cans are mass produced by small-size processing firms in regional areas. Major manufacturers purchase them at low prices and market them after labeling them as their own brands.

The mainstream of the tomato processing industry in Italy focuses more on quantity than on quality. A large amount of low-priced canned tomatoes are exported to other European countries and around the world. The top importer of Italian canned tomatoes is Britain which prefers low-priced products. Japan is the third largest importer.

We tend to associate Italian tomatoes with the country’s beautiful rural villages and rich cuisine, but as a matter of fact, local tomato farmers there are facing difficult problems. The domestic market is hit by an influx of cheap imports of tomato puree from China, which are used as an ingredient for pasta sauce and other products. After Russia banned imports of food products made in Europe in 2014 in retaliation for Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, there has been an oversupply of tomatoes in the market. Farmers had no other choice but to produce unlabeled cans in order to survive an endless price war.

Local media reports say low-cost production of the tomato processing industry in Italy is supported by refugees who are shipped from African countries by mafia — nearly 100,000 every year — and are forced to work under slave-like conditions.

Another news reported last week said the Australian government backed a decision to slap anti-dumping measures on two major Italian producers of canned tomatoes for selling their products for less than they sell for their own country and causing damage to the local industry.

Canned tomatoes, whose annual exports total €900 million (roughly ¥120 billion), might be the success story of Italy’s agriculture. But we should not forget the facts behind the figures, such as hard bargaining, labor exploitation and dumping.

(Feb. 16, 2016)

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