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Dr. Dawg's Blawg

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John Baglow is a former VP of PSAC, currently a writer and researcher, public policy consultant, occasional academic and poet. He blogs at drdawgsblawg.ca and no longer tweets.

Playing ketchup with Heinz in the tomato wars

| March 21, 2016
Playing ketchup with Heinz in the tomato wars

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I'm not much of a ketchup-fancier, to be honest: the last time I used the store-bought variety was to make East-West sauce, and that was some time back. I purchased the bottle in my fridge far too long ago, well before the current Battle of the Ketchups broke out.

I don't like slapping that stuff on things: it's the great American democratizer, making everything taste equal. Yet I found myself caught up in the temper of the times and eager to buy a bottle of French's ketchup to show the flag.

It doesn't much matter which ketchup tastes best: in fact, a blind test indicated considerable confusion on that score. But we know that we aren't dealing with the real here. We are confronted, rather, by simulacra, defined by Jean Baudrillard as pure simulation having no relation to any reality whatsoever. Ironically, the notion of a "real without origin or reality" is located here precisely in the notion of origin, which is in itself yet another subterfuge.

The purchasers of ketchup buy and consume signs: and when those signs are in competition with each other, hilarity ensues. Taste, as we have just seen, is not at issue. Instead, representations of nationalism and anti-corporatism (cunningly fostered by corporations) are poured over your French fries (ha! the subliminal is also enlisted!) and slathered all over your hamburgers and hot dogs.

In 2014, ketchup-maker H. J. Heinz closed its plant in Leamington, Ontario, where prime tomatoes have been grown locally for generations. A thousand or so full and part-time jobs were lost. Then French's -- owned by a British conglomerate -- stepped up to make its own ketchup with those Leamington tomatoes.

The matter found its way onto Facebook this past February, and was duly amplified, indeed exponentially so. Buying French's ketchup was a blow struck for Canada. And no corn syrup! And no artificial flavours!

Heinz will continue to buy Leamington tomatoes, however -- to produce tomato juice. Under Canadian law, this must be made from fresh tomatoes, not the paste used in the U.S. So Heinz sold its Leamington plant to a new company, Highbury Canco, which manufactures the juice Heinz sells here. Highbury Canco now employs over 400 locals. As Tom Walkom points out, free trade "harmonization" has not yet lighted upon the tomato juice industry to destroy hundreds more jobs in Leamington.

Loblaws, meanwhile, rashly decided to remove French's ketchup from its shelves, not due to low sales, as it turns out, but the opposite. The upstart sauce was quickly upstaging Loblaws' own President's Choice brand. The threat of a consumer boycott, however, made the supermarket chain change its mind in a single day. Meanwhile, a petition has been circulating in Queen's Park, asking that only French's ketchup be served there to hungry legislators and staff.

As it happens, the author of the Facebook post, Brian Fernandez, is off to Queen's Park this Thursday to receive ceremonial recognition from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture. Apparently he will be joined by the president of French's, who will fly up from the U.S. to attend and to meet Fernandez and the family.

I haven't even tasted French's ketchup yet. But I know that I'll love it.

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