Preserves, an analysis is enough to reveal the origin of tomatoes

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Tomato preserves are an emblem of Made in Italy food and the debate over the origin of raw materials on labels. Beyond the rants against the infamous ‘Chinese concentrate,’ however, few have devoted themselves to verifying with analytical tools the actual origin of the tomatoes used in the various preserves.

To be fair, the Stazione Sperimentale per l’Industria delle Conserve Alimentari (SSICA) in Parma has been working for years on drafting an analysis protocol that is almost foolproof in determining where tomatoes are grown. (1) Developing, in 2018, a database available to all who wish to carry out such surveys. (2)

However, there is no news of the adoption of these instruments either by the control authorities or by that canning industry that could also thus lend luster to its productions. It is then worth sharing the outcome of scientific research, strictly Made in Italy.

The origin of the tomato

The tomato is the berry of a plant(Lycopersicon esculentum, Solanaceae family) native to tropical and subtropical regions of the American continent (probably from present-day Mexico and Peru). Brought to Europe in the 16th century by Spanish condottieri, it has established itself to the point of becoming a key player in the agriculture and gastronomic culture-as well as production-of the Bel Paese.

Italy is the absolute leader in the production of canned tomatoes, of which it expresses 77 percent of the total at the planetary level (in value, € 928 million approx., Ismea elaborations on Comtrade 2018 data). Italy’s production of processing tomatoes, on the other hand, accounts for 13 percent of the total, after the U.S. (California) and close behind China, with about 4.9 out of 37 million tons/year(World Processing Tomato Council, 2019 estimates).

Origin on label

Regulation (EU) 2018/775, as noted above, requires the origin or provenance of the primary ingredient (as >50 percent or characterizing) to be indicated on the label of all foodstuffs released for sale in the EU, where it does not coincide with the Made in boasted of, including through graphic representations.

The origin of the tomato on the label of canned goods containing more than 50 percent of the total was then provided for in an Italian interministerial decree. However, the DM 16.11.27 is inapplicable, as it was not notified to the European Commission as it should have been. (4)

Origin in the laboratory

Ludwig Feuerbach, the father of German materialism, is remembered for the aphorism ‘man is what he eats.’ (5) Without going into the merits of this concept, which is still the basis of nutrition science, we note how the same applies to plants as well. Where the composition of soils-from the chemical elements, particularly the minerals in soils-is exactly reproduced in certain plants grown there.

Researchers at the Parma Experimental Station followed up on this insight through analysis of the mineral composition of tomato preserves. The first study was based on the measurement of the contents of 26 minerals (Li, Be, Na, Mg, Al, K, Ca, V, Cr, Mn, Co, Cu, Zn, Ga, As, Rb, Sr, Ag, Cd, In, Cs, Ba, Tl, Pb, Bi, U) in 41 samples of tomatoes originating from 3 countries (Italy, China, and Spain). Statistical processing of the collected data thus made it possible to identify, with an almost infallible level of accuracy (99.9 percent), the origin of the tomatoes. (1)

A database of characteristic ‘mineral footprints’ from four growing countries (Italy, Spain, China and the U.S.-California) was then developed in a second scientific study. Thanks to analyses conducted on 183 samples of tomato derivatives, collected in three different years (2013, 2015, 2017) by inspection bodies from the Ministries of Agriculture and Forestry (MiPAAF) and Finance (Customs Agency). Who certified its origin.

Perspectives

The methods of sampling products–on the market, by independent third parties–and analyzing their mineral contents, based on the protocol developed by SSICA, point the way forward. With the dual objectives of preventing and combating food fraud, on the one hand, and validating the authenticity of products through integration of respective certification protocols, on the other.

The protocol under consideration differs from previous analytical methods in its applicability to a wide range of products. Tomato purees-whose possible adulteration (by dilution, even partial dilution, of concentrate) may already be intercepted by other systems-but also sauces and gravies, ready-made pulps and concentrates. And it is unique in its ability to accurately identify the fingerprint of different growing countries. DNA analysis is indeed meaningless where identical seeds are used in different ranges.

Further research could be conducted to extend this analytical approach to other vegetable preserves (including mushroom preserves), perhaps even to other products of first industrial processing. It is only a pity that the word ‘research‘ does not appear in public and private budgets as much as in presentations at conferences.

To be or to appear?

Dario Dongo

Notes

(1) Rosaria Fragni, Antonio Trifirò, Ada Nucci. (2015). Towards the development of a multi-element analysis by ICP-oa_TOF-MS for tracing the geographical origin of processed tomato products. Food Control, 48, 2015, 96-101. doi: 10.1016/j.foodcont.2014.04.027

(2) Rosaria Fragni, Antonio Trifirò, Ada Nucci, Andrew Seno, Alessia Allodi, Matteo Di Rocco. (2018). Italian tomato-based products authentication by multi-element approach: a mineral elements database to distinguish the domestic provenance. Food Control, 93, 2018, 211-218. doi: 10.1016/j.foodcont.2018.06.002

(3) The processing tomato industry. Ismea data, IO Tomato North Italy and IO Central South Italy. – August 2019. Edagricole, https://terraevita.edagricole.it/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2019/08/Il-comparto-del-pomodoro-da-industria.pdf

(4) On 3/30/20, Ministers Teresa Bellanova and Stefano Patuanelli declared, among other things, by press release, that on that same date they had signed a decree extending DM 16.11.17, which, however, was not published in the Official Gazette (see https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade .it/etichette/decreti-origine-pasta-riso-e-pomodoro-nuovi-abusi-da-bellanova-e-patuanelli). Rumor has it that Ambassador Michele Quaroni, Italy’s deputy permanent representative to the EU, informed the European Commission about the decree 30.3.20, without even stating the reasons that would justify a national provision on a matter expressly harmonized at the EU level (as required by EU Reg. 1169/11, Articles 45.1 and 39.2. See also Art. 38.1). Transparency is not at home, in Rome as in Brussels. In any case, even if the three-month standstill period stipulated by EU rules had elapsed, the legitimacy of DM 30.3.20 would be questionable. Without neglecting the principle of non-retroactivity of regulations not yet published in the Official Gazette, which, in the bizarre ministerial decrees, were supposed to extend an unlawful decree ab origine whose temporal effectiveness would have ended, at the latest, on 1.4.20 anyway. Indeed, on 1.6.18, the effective date of reg. EU 2018/775, given that the previous extension was itself unconstitutional due to blatant conflict with the Pre-Laws (see https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade .it/etichette/decreti-origine-ultimo-atto)

(5) The famous phrase was introduced by Ludwig Feuerbach in his review of ‘A Treatise on Nutrition for the People’ by Jakob Moleschott, a Dutch physician and physiologist, published in Germany in 1850