Tomato-Paste Colonialism

A hundred workers were picking tomatoes in a field near Wusu, a town in northern Xinjiang Province, China, half way between the provincial capital, Ürümqi, and the border with Kazakhstan. Most were migrants from Sichuan Province, with a few Uyghurs. A teenage girl raised her cleaver above her head and cut off a leafy stem laden with ripe fruit. Another worker picked up the stem and shook it, and the tomatoes fell to the ground with a thud; gradually, the field was covered with red and green stripes. Men and women crouched down to fill big plasticized canvas sacks. They were earning 2.2 renminbi for each 25-kilogram sack, just over 1 US cent per kilo. “Me and my wife can sometimes fill 170 sacks in a day,” said one worker. That comes out at around $28 each, 10 times more than they earned in the early 2000s. But now they compete with machines imported from Italy.

From a corner of the field, Li Songmin watched his tomatoes being harvested. Li rents the field and didn’t know the pickers, who were all recruited through an agent. That evening, a truck would deliver the tomatoes to a factory run by Cofco Tunhe; that was all Li knew. Cofco Tunhe supplies him with high-yield Heinz varieties, which he must grow according to precise specifications, and guarantees to buy the crop at a pre-agreed price.

The China National Cereals, Oils, and Foodstuffs Corporation (Cofco) is China’s largest tomato processor and a Fortune Global 500 corporation. It’s a conglomerate that brings together entities established during the Mao era, when it was the only company authorized to import and export agricultural products. Its subsidiary Tunhe, which specializes in sugar and industrial tomatoes, has 15 tomato processing plants, 11 in Xinjiang alone, producing drums of paste that it sells to agrifood giants such as Kraft Heinz, Unilever, Nestlé, Kagome, Del Monte, PepsiCo, and McCormick, the world leader in seasonings and spices.

It’s not hard to find the entrance to one of these factories: just follow the convoy of trucks loaded with red fruit. The Cofco plant in Changji turns out 5,200 tons of paste a day. “We only produce drums for export. They are shipped to Europe, the US, Africa, and all over Asia,” says Wang Bo, one of the plant’s directors.

Workers on walkways above the loading dock train powerful water jets on the trailers, and wash the fruit down chutes into a “river” that rinses them, and carries them to be peeled, de-pipped, crushed, and heated. At the end, workers line steel drums with sterile bags, connect them to an Italian-made filling robot, press a button and check a monitor: In a few seconds, the 220-liter bags are full of triple concentrate. “The margins in tomato processing are small,” said Yu Tianchi, head of tomato operations at Cofco Tunhe. “Heinz buys our paste so it can focus on areas of processing and production where the margins are bigger.” HGVs carry the paste to a rail yard, where its long journey begins.

Its first stop is the canneries of Tianjin, nearly 1,900 miles away at the other end of China. When Ma Zhenyong, director of the Jintudi cannery, pushed open a heavy door, a wave of heat and noise washed over us. They don’t process tomatoes here but reheat paste from Xinjiang and can it. Under yellowish neon strip lights, the machinery discharges a torrent of full cans, steaming hot. The main production line fills 70-gallon cans, the smallest size; an auxiliary line fills 400-gallon cans. The plant operates on three eight-hour shifts, and turns out some 2,000 container-loads a year. Workers are paid the equivalent of $550 a month for a 56-hour week, according to Ma.

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