WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Consumers and even retailers may not readily notice the difference, but tomatoes from Florida and Mexico in coming weeks may be slightly larger.
The increase of 1/32 of an inch in the minimum tomato size -- a characteristic regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- was proposed by the Florida Tomato Committee, representing state growers who supply about half the fresh tomatoes sold in the United States.
The move is designed to increase the overall quality of Florida tomatoes by allowing farmers to leave the fruit on the vine a few days longer to ripen further and become more flavorful. Previous size requirements encouraged farmers to pick their tomatoes while virtually green, allowing for ripening to occur in transit, according to the committee.
Florida growers operate under a USDA marketing order, which sets the minimum size and quality of tomatoes allowed to be sold as fresh. Imports from Mexico -- Florida's leading competitor from October to June -- are also affected by the market order, which is in effect during the eight-month season.
The minimum size for all three categories of tomatoes from Florida and Mexico will be increased. Medium tomatoes can't be smaller than 2-8/32 inches; large, 2-16/32 inches; and extra large, 2-24/32 inches. A date for the increase hasn't been set, but it could come as early as this month.
While improving the market's standards for flavor was an issue, Florida growers were also concerned that having smaller tomatoes on the market depressed sales.
"The consumers are demanding bigger tomatoes," said Wayne Hawkins, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Winter Haven, Fla.
Hawkins said Florida growers want to increase tomato sales, which have dropped 30% in the last four years, a decline growers largely pin to the influx of lower cost Mexican imports since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect Jan. 1, 1994.
For their part, Mexican growers and shippers have largely supported the size change, although they had wanted it to be implemented a year from now for them to better shoulder the cost of increasing the size of conveyor belts used to sort the fruit, said Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz.
All tomato sales should improve, Frankel said. "When people eat bad tomatoes they might stop eating all tomatoes," he said. Likewise, he forecast that standards for tomatoes grown in other parts of the United States -- which aren't covered by marketing orders -- will also be raised.
Florida tomato growers have tried other means to stay competitive. Last year farmers scored a partial victory in their attempt to get the U.S. government to levy dumping duties on Mexican tomato imports, which Florida growers said were being sold at well below fair market value. The Commerce Department issued a preliminary decision in favor of Florida growers, leading Mexican growers to reach a settlement. As a result, prices of Mexican imports can no longer fall below 20.68 cents per pound.