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The Return of The Great Tomato : It's big, it's red and it tastes good too. Sun World International's new DiVine Ripe is a breakthrough in tomato technology

August 02, 1990|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No fruit or vegetable has been more maligned than the modern tomato.

And with good reason.

The wonderful varieties that were sold in farmers' markets and roadside stands are, for the most part, gone from today's grocery store. The rich flavor, deep color and juicy texture of the classic beefsteak are distant memories.

But now a major breakthrough in tomato technology is occurring in Orange County. The season's inaugural harvest of Sun World International's DiVine Ripe began a few days ago on Irvine Ranch. This may be the finest tomato ever grown commercially.

"Commercial tomato's flavor has traditionally been unacceptable," says David Marguleas, marketing vice president for Sun World. Durability and shelf life--two attributes highly prized by growers--are probably responsible for the tomato's decline in quality. The vast majority of fresh tomatoes is harvested green and treated with ethylene gas to hasten color development. Only a small percentage of the crop is actually vine-ripened.

Sun World, one of the produce industry's most innovative firms, decided to change that. The Indio-based company began its search for tomato perfection in the late '70s. They discovered that Israeli researchers were in the initial stages of developing what was to become the patented DiVine Ripe seed.

The original challenge facing the researchers was to isolate the exact constituents of superb tomato taste.

"I don't know of any instrument that will tell you whether a tomato's flavor is good or bad," said Yakov Ben-Zion, President of LSL Biotechnologies, Inc., in San Diego. (Under the current agreement, LSL conducts the research on DiVine Ripe while Sun World handles production and marketing of the fruit.) "It takes eight or nine painstaking years to develop a variety such as this."

Good tomato flavor is achieved by balancing the levels of sugar and acidity in the fruit. Vine-ripened varieties are better than those picked green because the sugar levels are not cut short by an early harvest and are allowed to increase naturally.

Having attained the preferred flavor elements, the scientists were faced with an equally difficult task: developing the proper firmness so that the tomatoes could withstand the rigors of shipping.

"Vine-ripened is the way to go, but if you harvest at that stage of maturity (partially red) then there are great difficulties in shipping the fruit," said Marguleas. "Unless you can breed in the right amount of firmness, then all the flavor achievements are for naught because you can't get the tomatoes to market. Flavor and firmness are critical."

Ben-Zion is quick to point out that a firm tomato is not necessarily a bad one. "You don't want the tomato so hard that it is like a rock," he says, "but it still must hold its texture (in the week or more required to reach supermarket shelves after harvest)."

The decade of research tailored the DiVine Ripe to temperate climates such as Irvine's, which lacks extreme heat or wild temperature fluctuations. Orange County is not as unusual a choice as it may seem: The 65,000 acre Irvine Ranch has 10,000 acres designated as agricultural. "Southern California," Marguleas said, "is one of the best growing areas for tomatoes in the United States."

Today, the success of the project is evident in the lush rows of five-foot-tall vines bulging with fruit. Workers cut and gently place the tomatoes in wooden crates lined with plastic bubble wrap. The tomatoes are then taken to a processing shed where the fruit is washed, sorted for size and color variations, adorned with a Sun World sticker and then packed for shipment.

The name may look familiar because the trademarked tomato was briefly available twice in the past. In 1986 and again in 1988, Sun World distributed the forerunner of the current variety. But although customers acclaimed the tomato, the firm was not satisfied with the product. "The original DiVine Ripes were not as perfect as we hoped," says Marguleas. "One of the imperfections was that the tomato was (too) susceptible to cloud cover and it didn't color evenly."

The original varieties were also damaged by insects native to other crops in the Irvine Ranch area, and yield per acre was disappointing. None of these problems are surprising: Tomatoes are notoriously difficult to grow commercially. "They had an awfully good tomato the first time around," says Richard G. Spezzano, produce vice president for The Vons Companies. "But they didn't get the consistency they were looking for."

The harvest of DiVine Ripe will continue through October, when the growing area will be switched to Baja and other Mexican venues. By 1991, Sun World hopes to have year-round national distribution of its tomato.

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