They are some of the world’s most prized tomatoes, beloved by chefs for their low acidity and brilliant red color, the key to great Italian sauces, the products of rich volcanic soil in the coastal fields around Mount Vesuvius.
That’s the allure of San Marzano tomatoes. But a new lawsuit alleges that one of America’s most popular brands of the canned tomatoes aren’t true San Marzanos at all — they’re impostors, slapping the revered name onto lesser tomatoes to command a higher price tag.
The suit, filed by three Northern California home cooks in federal court last week, accuses the New Jersey food company Cento of “false, misleading and deceptive advertising” on cans labeled as San Marzano tomatoes. It seeks to create a class of consumers that could include thousands of people nationwide who have bought the tomatoes, claiming that those customers are entitled to relief because the tomatoes are not true San Marzanos and shoppers would not have paid a premium if they had known the truth.
Cento strongly denied the lawsuit’s allegations, saying that its tomatoes are true San Marzanos and the suit’s claims are “unfounded” and “frivolous.”
This isn’t the first time the legitimacy of the Sam Marzano tomatoes on American grocery store shelves has been questioned. The online food magazine TASTE described the tomato variety in a 2017 article as “the fake Rolex of canned foods,” citing comments from an Italian official that at most, 5 percent of the tomatoes marketed as San Marzanos in the United States were legitimate. The New York Times reported in 2015 that some companies sold American-grown tomatoes as San Marzanos, and that Italian authorities “regularly seize” cans of counterfeit tomatoes.
The reason is in part the almost mythical reputation the meaty, oblong plum tomatoes enjoy in the food world, as well as the high standards of the San Marzano title.
Think of the tomatoes like Champagne, which must come from the eponymous region in France to be worthy of the name: One of many Italian standards for San Marzanos is that they must come from a limited number of fields in one agricultural region of southwestern Italy, the Agro Sarnese-Noceino. The same variety of tomato can be grown elsewhere, but it won’t be an official San Marzano.
Those standards don’t apply in the United States, meaning sellers can use the widely recognized name on tomatoes that wouldn’t pass muster in their homeland.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California alleges that while Cento processes the tomatoes it sells as San Marzanos from the Agro Sarnese-Noceino, many of them are actually grown outside that zone. A complaint filed in the suit claims a tool on Cento’s website that allows buyers to find the field where each can of tomatoes was grown shows that some of the tomatoes were grown elsewhere in Italy’s Campania region.
It also states that while Cento’s distinctive yellow cans boast “certified” in bold letters, they do not bear the marking of an Italian consortium that confers the San Marzano title.
A similar lawsuit over San Marzanos was filed against Cento in federal court in New York earlier this year. That case has not yet been resolved.
A spokesman for Cento said the consortium mentioned in the California suit is not the only entity that certifies San Marzanos, and that its tomatoes are certified by a third party.
“At Cento, we take pride in the truthfulness and accuracy of our product labels,” the company said in a statement. “Cento exceeds industry standards in production and has always operated with the highest integrity. Any suggestion to the contrary is absolutely false.”