WEST DEPTFORD, N.J. – A tomato fight is looming for a New Jersey-based company that markets Italian foods.
A federal lawsuit challenges the authenticity of San Marzano tomatoes sold by Cento Fine Foods, contending the company’s customers are paying an inflated price for a lesser-pedigreed pomodoro.
Cento, founded in 1962 by the son of a South Philadelphia grocer, denies the claim as “completely unfounded.”
“We take pride in the fact that our labels accurately describe the products inside,” the company said in a statement Wednesday, asserting it “exceeds industry standards in production and has always operated with the highest integrity.”
The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco by three California consumers, contends “authentic” San Marzano tomatoes can only come from an area in southern Italy, Agro Sarnese Nocerino, with “rich volcanic soil and (a) warm, sunny and coastal climate.”
It also asserts the premium tomatoes must be certified by a “consortium” – the Cosorzio di Tutela del Pomodora San Marzano DOP.
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It alleges some of Cento’s tomatoes come from the adjacent Campania region, and that the firm’s San Marzano products are certified by a third-party organization other than the consortium.
The class-action suit seeks damages on behalf of two proposed groups of Cento customers, in California and nationwide. It asserts the “matter in controversy” has a value of more than $5 million.
According to the suit, shoppers will pay more for San Marzano tomatoes “or purchase them instead of other tomatoes, because, rightly or wrongly, consumers believe San Marzano tomatoes have a superior look and taste.”
The suit, which includes photographs of a Cento tomato can, contends the firm “seeks to take advantage” of customers by misrepresenting its products “as if they were San Marzano tomatoes grown in the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino in Italy.”
Cento’s statement says it is “the only brand to have full traceability, sustainability and transparency of San Marzano tomato products.”
Cans for Cento’s San Marzano products have a map of Italy on the back label with shaded areas showing Agro Sarnese Nocerino and Campania. The labels say the San Marzano tomatoes “are grown in the Sarnese Nocerino area of Italy.”
Cento’s website delivers a similar message and notes the company’s processing plant “sits in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius” in the San Marzano region.
The suit acknowledges “seeds used to grow San Marzano tomatoes have been cultivated elsewhere” but says those crops “are not true ‘San Marzano’ tomatoes.”
Both sides also point to the “Find My Field” program at Cento’s website, which allows customers to use lot numbers on cans to identify where tomatoes were grown.
Cento says the “groundbreaking” program allows customers to use lot numbers on cans to pinpoint the exact field in which the tomatoes … are grown.”
But the lawsuit asserts “Several of the fields linked to certified San Marzano lot numbers are not located in the Agro Sarnese Nocerino.”
Follow Jim Walsh on Twiiter: @jimwalsh_cp