Woman Sues Tomato Company, Saying Those Weren’t San Marzanos in the Can

Woman Sues Tomato Company, Saying Those Weren’t San Marzanos in the Can

San Marzano tomatoes are prized by chefs around the world for their intense flavor and are routinely recommended by recipe writers, but one woman in California said that her effort to make a sauce from these rich and balanced tomatoes was upset by a misleading label.

Simpson Imports, a Pennsylvania tomato seller, has for years sold Roma tomatoes in cans and boxes, but the California woman, Andrea Valiente, said in a lawsuit filed last year that the company had used “highly misleading tomato packaging to trick consumers into believing that they are purchasing genuine San Marzano tomatoes, at San Marzano prices.”

Simpson Imports sought to dismiss the lawsuit, but Araceli Martínez-Olguín, a U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of California, said in an order on Tuesday that some of Ms. Valiente’s claims could move forward.

Simpson Imports said in an emailed statement that it “strongly disputes that reasonable consumers could have been deceived” by the label since “San Marzano” does not appear on it.

The company said “San Marzano” had not been used on the products’ labels in nearly a decade, not since the “products contained a different blend.”

Simpson Imports sells its canned and boxed tomatoes, as well as tomato sauces and a tomato paste, under its “San Merican Tomatoes” brand, which it said was made with a “proprietary blend of Roma tomatoes.” The company’s products are often recommended by food experts, including writers at The New York Times.

At a hearing in January, Simpson Imports said it had sold canned tomatoes labeled “San Marzano” nine years ago, according to the judge’s order.

Ms. Valiente said in her complaint that the old product and current product had “nearly identical” packaging.

Both the old and current packaging had colored ribbons at the top and bottom to describe whether the tomatoes were whole, crushed, diced or puréed. Both cans were also decorated with illustrations of tomatoes that resembled the oblong shapes of San Marzanos. Simpson Imports said in a statement that the tomato illustration was “a hand-drawing of a Roma tomato that the company’s founder did when he was a child.”

On the cans used today, the letters “S.M.T.” appear over the tomato illustrations. The older product said “San Marzano” on the illustrated tomatoes. On the current can design, words are also embedded in each letter to spell “San” on the “S,” “erican” on the “M” and “omato,” on the “T.”

“The result is lettering so comically minuscule that it is almost impossible to see with the naked eye,” Ms. Valiente said in the complaint.

Judge Martínez-Olguín said in her order, which was reported by Courthouse News Service, that it was “plausible” that other consumers would see the cans and “reasonably believe that Simpson’s tomatoes are San Marzano tomatoes.”

The tomatoes from Simpson Imports are priced higher than many other canned tomato brands, which “contributes to the plausibility of a consumer’s expectation that Simpson’s tomatoes are San Marzano tomatoes,” the judge wrote.

The labeling of San Marzano tomatoes in the United States has been loose. In the European Union, only tomatoes that are grown in a specific region of Italy and that fulfill a number of other requirements receive the “designation of protected origin,” or D.O.P., to show they are San Marzanos. In the United States, some tomato sellers claim to grow strains of San Marzanos and may sell those tomatoes as “San Marzano style” or use “San Marzano” without the official European certification.

Ms. Valiente said in her lawsuit that the labeling used on Simpson Imports’ tomato cans suggested that it could be either D.O.P. tomatoes or “San Marzano style” tomatoes, though in actuality, “it sells inferior Roma tomatoes.” She has 21 days to file an amended complaint.

In 2019, three other California home cooks filed a lawsuit against a New Jersey-based tomato seller, Cento Fine Foods, claiming it had falsely labeled its tomatoes as San Marzanos. Cento said in a statement at the time that the allegations were “completely unfounded,” and the plaintiffs dropped the lawsuit in 2021.

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Chriss B. Cornell

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