Tomato Fight: New lawsuit alleges imposter Italian tomatoes

Kate Larsen Image
ByKate Larsen KGO logo
Tuesday, May 21, 2019
Tomato Fight: New lawsuit alleges imposter Italian tomatoes
Tomatoes are a cornerstone of Italian cooking. And there's one particular tomato that's prized and priced above the rest-- the San Marzano tomato.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Tomatoes are a cornerstone of Italian cooking and there's one particular tomato that's prized and priced above the rest-- the San Marzano tomato.

"They get this very low acidity, PH is around 4.5, and they're sweeter," said Elia Gambaccini, whose family owns Cafe Baonecci in North Beach.

Gambaccini says San Marzano tomatoes make for great pizza and pasta sauce.

"They're very nice."

But the legitimacy of San Marzano tomatoes in American grocery stores has long been questioned.

A new class-action lawsuit, filed by three Northern California home cooks last week, alleges that New Jersey food company Cento is peddling imposter San Marzano tomatoes to command a higher price.

"The real San Marzano tomatoes are grown close to the Valle Del Sarno, which is in Campania close to Naples," explained Gambaccini.

In a statement, the plaintiff's attorney, Melissa Weiner, said, "Just like champagne, San Marzano tomatoes are a region-specific food, and reasonable consumers purchase them-and pay a premium price-to capture the superior look and taste of Southern Italy's rich volcanic soil. Our clients, and the members of the putative class, relied upon the alleged certification of Cento's San Marzano tomatoes and were induced into purchasing these tomatoes believing they were, in fact, certified and thus authentic San Marzano tomatoes as promised."

The lawsuit says the "defendant's labeling, packaging, and website are designed to lead reasonable consumers to believe the Products are 'San Marzano' tomatoes from Italy, when, in fact, the Products are not true San Marzano tomatoes."

Gambaccini looked at a label on a can of Cento's San Marzano tomatoes and thought it looked authentic, except he pointed out that the label did not include the D.O.P certification, a protected designation of origin under European Union regulations.

"No. I would never buy this," Gambaccini said about the can of Cento San Marzano tomatoes, which did not have the D.O.P. label.

Cento's website says their San Marzano tomatoes are regulated and certified.

The following is an excerpt from Cento's website:

"Cento Certified San Marzano Tomatoes have always been, and continue to be grown and produced in the Sarnese Nocerino area of Italy. They continue to follow the same premium-quality standards that Cento has always stood by, the standards that made us the leading brand in the United States for San Marzano tomatoes. San Marzano tomatoes are regulated and certified authentic by an independent third party, Agri-Cert, using the guidelines created to regulate San Marzano tomatoes in Italy. These guidelines were created to help differentiate a true San Marzano tomato that follows the criteria from other varietal Italian tomatoes grown outside the designated region or domestically. This ensures shoppers aren't misled by non-genuine products who use the San Marzano name in their products, which, without following the strict criteria, may be inferior quality or contain a different flavor profile."

Centro has also released the following statement:

"Cento Fine Foods refutes wrongful, frivolous lawsuit regarding misrepresentation of Certified San Marzano Tomatoes.

At Cento Fine Foods, we take nothing more seriously than the quality and integrity of our products. We take pride in that fact that our labels accurately describe the products inside. Cento is a brand consumers can trust. Cento Certified San Marzano Tomatoes are meticulously monitored by the strictest quality controls. Our seeds and seedlings are DNA tested to be true San Marzano tomatoes. Our fields and farmers are audited by a third party in Italy who assures that the tomatoes are grown in the rich fertile soil of Sarnese-Nocerino at the base of Mt. Vesuvius in Campagna. Our San Marzano tomatoes are produced in a facility exclusively dedicated to Cento brand San Marzano tomatoes. For these reasons among others, Cento has become synonymous with consistent premium quality tomatoes in the marketplace.

Cento is the only brand to have full traceability, sustainability, and transparency of San Marzano tomato products. With groundbreaking Find My Field and PAC Traceability, consumers are able to pinpoint the exact field in which the tomatoes in each can of Cento Certified San Marzano Tomatoes are grown.

Recently, an unfounded wrongful class action lawsuit was filed claiming that Cento Certified San Marzano Tomatoes are not genuine. Unfortunately, this type of litigation can be brought forward with mere allegation. Cento firmly refutes all of the ignorant, inaccurate, and wrongful claims in the complaint and is astounded by the lack of factual information therein.

The complaint is brought forward under the false pretense that " The Consorzio di Tutela del Pomodoro San Marzano DOP ("Consortium") is the only entity which can certify and approve a San Marzano tomato." This statement is absolutely false. Cento has lawfully chosen to use Agricert, a third party certifying body in Italy, to verify the authenticity of the Cento San Marzano tomatoes. It is also worth noting that "SAN MARZANO" is part of the Cento trademark. At Cento, we take pride in the truthfulness and accuracy of our product labels. Cento exceeds industry standards in production and has always operated with the highest integrity. Any suggestion to the contrary is absolutely false. As always, you can "Trust Your Family With Our Family."

In her statement, Weiner said the lawsuit "seeks to reimburse consumers for the price they paid for tomatoes that are, as alleged, not certified or true San Marzano tomatoes and halt Cento's allegedly deceptive marketing and labeling of the tomatoes."