Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ketchup Plays Catch-Up with Spicy Salsa

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ketchup Plays Catch-Up with Spicy Salsa

Article excerpt

EVERY weekday morning at 8:30, H. J. Heinz Company executives gather in a small room here at the Fremont, Ohio, plant. Laid out before them are dozens of plastic ice-cream dishes. The dishes are filled, not with ice cream but with ketchup.

Some executives sample a few dishes. The plant manager skips breakfast so he can taste each one, which represents a different hour of production. "You can taste the difference," he says, between the ketchup prepared here and at Heinz's two other ketchup plants. Such are the traditions scrupulously observed at Fremont, which bills itself as the world's largest ketchup factory.

But like many grand traditions, this one is under attack. Even as Fremont keeps turning out ketchup, the red stuff is losing its status as America's No. 1 condiment. So ketchup producers have launched a counteroffensive, which is one reason that on a pleasant September day, Heinz is ushering a handful of reporters through its plant at Fremont.

The fly in ketchup's ointment is salsa. Americans are developing a taste for hotter foods. "Ethnic foods gained in popularity," the United States Agriculture Department's quarterly magazine, FoodReview, pointed out in late 1992. "Americans now use more salsa than catsup."

"I'm not sure it {ketchup} is the all-American condiment anymore," adds Bob Burke, vice president of sales and marketing for salsa-maker Pace Foods Ltd. The San Antonio company is the No. 1 US salsa manufacturer.

Nonsense, the ketchup-makers counter. And just to prove it, Heinz released last month a survey from NPD Group in Park Ridge, Ill., showing that 97 percent of America's kitchens stock ketchup. Only salt, pepper, and sugar rated as high. Yellow mustard made it in 93 percent of US kitchens; salsa in only 51 percent. "Ketchup," says Heinz spokeswoman Deb Magness, "is still the king of condiments."

The key is in how one counts. Americans for the past two years have spent more on Mexican sauces than on ketchup. The latest survey from Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based market- research company, shows annual sales of Mexican sauces running at $680 million; ketchup is running behind at $423 million.

But salsa costs more than ketchup. In terms of how much Americans actually eat, ketchup is still far ahead: 569.2 million pints a year, according to Information Resources survey, compared with only 353 million pints of Mexican sauces. That's more than two pints of ketchup a year for each man, woman, and child in the country - especially the child. Heinz says its biggest consumers are under 12. The most likely ketchup targets: hamburgers, french fries, and hot dogs (in that order).

EMPLOYEES at the Fremont plant tend to dismiss the competition. For one thing, the survey figures pit ketchup against all Mexican sauces, not just salsa, they point out. …

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