UglyRipe has been freed, but will be scarce

The UglyRipe tomato - whose fresh taste endeared itself to consumers weary of mealy, pink substitutes - has been freed for shipment nationwide.

"They are the closest taste to what we used to grow in the garden here," said Wilma R. Caldwell of Haddonfield.

The problem for Caldwell and other fans of the UglyRipe is that Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., the Philadelphia company that developed the tomato, planted only 100 acres for the current winter season because it was unsure it would get a long-sought exemption from regulatory restrictions in Florida.

"Now we're going to proceed and grow 400 to 500 more" and started to plant seeds yesterday in greenhouses, said Joseph G. Procacci, the company's chairman and president.

But for now, the tomatoes will be in short supply.

The exemption - published Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture - freed UglyRipes, bred for taste rather than appearance, from the shape requirements for tomatoes shipped out of Florida's main tomato-growing region from mid-October to mid-June.

Procacci Bros. said it spent $3 million over 20 years developing the UglyRipe tomato, but was blocked from distributing it nationally three years ago by the Florida Tomato Committee, a group of farmers - including Procacci - authorized by federal law to set marketing standards.

The committee's standards are geared toward round tomatoes that are picked green and gassed to turn them pinkish red. Many UglyRipes, which are misshapen with pronounced ridges, do not make the grade.

The Agriculture Department's change requires that the UglyRipe follow a new identity-preservation program that uses the unique genetic fingerprint of a produce variety to assure that it is, in fact, the product claimed by its grower. In this case, the program would ensure that other misshapen tomatoes do not make it into distribution.

Procacci estimated that federal monitoring would cost the company $150,000 to $200,000 a year. He said he expected major supermarket chains to charge $2.99 to $3.99 per pound for UglyRipes.

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or