In 2009, Heinz rebranded its iconic ketchup with the tag line “Grown not made,” trading out the gherkin pickle silhouette on the label for a tomato vine illustration. The new additions, intended to cater to consumers looking for unprocessed foods, marked the first major change the company had made to the branding of its ketchup since the 1940s. At the time, Noel Geoffroy, Heinz’s U.S. marketing director, told the New York Times the combination of the new graphics and language were geared toward informing shoppers that the ketchup is “real, it’s grown, it’s natural, it’s fresh.”
Four years later, Heinz, with the help of Bonnie’s Plants, is rebranding a less recognizable product for a similar market: its tomato seeds. You can now buy Heinz Classic Heirloom tomato plants at Home Depot and other big box retailers.
There is truth in advertising when it comes to the ketchup maker: HeinzSeed is one of the world’s largest suppliers of tomato seeds, and the fruit for Heinz 57 is grown from the company’s proprietary hybrid seeds. This branch of the business doesn’t date quite all the way back to its founding, in 1876, but Heinz has been in the tomato-breeding business since the 1930s. According to the company website, six billion tomato seeds are distributed to growers every year. In a 2008 story about the California tomato industry, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Heinz, Bayer CropScience, and Monsanto are responsible for 90 percent of the seeds planted in the state, which grows nearly the entire domestic crop for processed tomato products like ketchup and tomato sauce.
Bottom line, HeinzSeed is big business, and the overwhelming emphasis is on hybrid varieties. Company literature extols the rigors of the tomato breeding program, which tests as many as 300 different varieties for each of its six-year “variety trial process.” The standards by which each class of potential commercial hybrids are judged is, “rigorous, time-consuming, meticulous, and beyond the norm in the industry,” according to Matt Lienfelder, the manager of Heinz’s North American operations. Each year two or three numbered varieties are released for commercial use, each hybrid developed to respond to a given set of market demands: sweeter fruit, disease resistance, higher yields.
All of this is to say, HeinzSeed, “the premier, all-natural hybrid tomato seed company,” is not known for heirloom tomato varieties. Which is by no means a bad thing; some of the most coveted tomatoes are hybrids. Take the Early Girl tomato as an example: Alice Waters, among many other notable chefs, is a fan of this hybrid—and Monsanto owns the patent.
Asking how a leading tomato breeder ended up lending its powerful brand image to an heirloom variety—the seeds are licensed and sold by Bonnie Plants—is essentially the same thing as asking what an heirloom is. And that’s a question to which there’s no good answer. It’s widely accepted that heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated, meaning the flowers are pollinated by insects, birds, wind, etc., and that seeds from the plant will produce a new generation with the same traits and characteristics. Beyond that, there’s little consensus on the definition.
Do varieties need to be over 100 years old? Date back to at least 1951? Been in production since before World War II? Some say varieties that have been around for a relatively short 40 years can be considered heirlooms. Other would-be lexicographers are less concerned with the calendar and more interested in defining heirlooms in the truest sense of the word: unique varieties that have been passed down within a family or community from generation to generation.
Bonnie’s Plants offers its own definition: “Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, which means they’re non-hybrid and pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. Heirlooms are usually pre-WWII varieties and they remain unchanged.”
So how does the Heinz Classic Heirloom stack up against the admittedly shifty definition of “heirloom”?
Bonnie’s refers to the variety as “One of the first Heinz tomato seed varieties that was used to make Heinz ketchup,” which would appear to be blatantly untrue. According to Dale Smith, HeinzSeed’s manager of global seed business, the tomato is an open-pollinated variety released from the company’s Bowling Green, Ohio, breeding program in 1962. Per the licensing agreement with Bonnie’s, HeinzSeed is not allowed to disclose the number assigned to the variety when it was first made available 51 years ago.
As an open-pollinated variety, Heinz Classic fits the agreed upon portion of the definition, but the date of its release puts it at the younger end of “heirloom”—and outside of Bonnie’s own loose timeline. And what about the exaggerated historical role? HeinzSeed’s Bowling Green breeding program opened in 1936; there were nearly three decades worth of breeding work done before the mystery variety was released in 1962.
None of this is to take away for the quality of the tomato itself. This is about language and markereting: When a word sells and when a word isn’t strictly defined, it’s guaranteed to be slapped on a product in the interest of making money. Even if Heinz Classic can nominally be considered an heirloom, the history attached to it is inaccurate if not wholly invented. But as someone who, as a kid, would eat just about anything if it had enough Heinz on it, the faux Americana pitch is still somewhat compelling. I might buy a plant and see how the flavor matches up with the history and opportunistic branding.
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Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as TastingTable, Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOOD, LA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com