- Sophie Colvine
, François-Xavier Branthôme
"AMITOM has already a long and mature history dated from 16th May 1979 when it was founded.
Below, I would like to invite you to read through all about this story with some moments where there were occasionally “stormy meetings” but in the end it went all quite well with “gastronomy and conviviality” making its magic!
Surely, we can understand it was not an easy process or task taken by the mentors of this association. The idea of converging interests for the industry which should be similar in all countries on a voluntary basis would definitely be an incredible challenge for any time to be.
Several years have passed and now countries, industries, corporatist structures, politics, directives, EC Agriculture guidelines, markets, customers, consumption and consumers are quite far away from those days!
However, don’t take this idea as being negative.
On the contrary, it give us the right moment to use the wisdom that we should have earned by “reading and learning” with the History of all these years.
We will have to give us the time to be humble with all that we have gone through these 40 years and come to the basis to underline the targets and goals for the present and future of our “Tomato Community” ( in a larger scale going far beyond from just our members).
Considering this ambitious goal, I would like to say it is my pleasure to be the President of AMITOM on its 40th anniversary and at the same time for having as its vice-president Mr. Samir Majoul from Tunisia.
As formers AMITOM’s Presidents expressed “ the Mediterranean is a bridge for people and cultures” to which I would like to add … “Bridges” that are now more and more close distance - distance of a click - by using digital communications and information to be used by customers, consumers and all of the wide world of TOMATO.
We are all very passionate with what we do and we hardly give up of a challenge! We did encourage the creation of WPTC and created this important tool: Tomato News!
Let us then use all this knowledge gathered at AMITOM to lead us into a new decade and write the new episodes of our story.
We should congratulate ourselves to have come so far … but we are already or just 40 years old! There is still a long life to live! "
Sónia Neves da Silva, President of AMITOM
1979-2019: AMITOM is 40 years old
In 1962, one of De Gaulle’s ministers, Edgar Pisani, made it legally possible for growers and processors to structure their industry. This resulted in the SONITO [SOciété Nationale Interprofessionnelle de la Tomate – National Interbranch Tomato Society] being set up in Avignon. SONITO was then, and still is, composed of three bodies representing the various partners of the sector: growers, represented by farmers unions, private processors, represented by the Canning Employer’s Syndicate, and processing cooperatives by the National Federation of Cooperative Canneries.
The clarification of economic data was not a priority, but one should remember the conditions for accessing information at the time: there were no reliable international trade statistics. Each national association published the year’s figures for tomato processing tonnage about 10 to 12 months after the end of the processing season. The only earlier indication available regarding processed tonnage was the evolution of the price of tomato products. And, there again, there was no official quotation. The prices were those that the major brokers let filter through with all the possible manipulations due to the opacity of the transactions.
Being aware of this weakness, SONITO launched a call for tender for a study on the situation of tomato processing worldwide, at the initiative of the FNCC (National Federation of Cooperative Canneries), led by Jacques Miklishansky.
A young consultant, Bernard Bièche, won the contract by proposing to produce both a table on the world situation of the tomato processing industry and individual studies on the situation in certain countries. The countries selected were Morocco, Portugal, Iran, Brazil and California. For the last two countries, a study trip was organised for a delegation of professionals. Participants still remember the very warm welcome received during the tour, particularly from Mr. George Johanessen, then director of the California Tomato Research Institute.
This study lasted a full year and enabled the French industry to situate itself in the world context and come to the conclusion that it was necessary to have a dense network of international contacts, both to obtain better access to information and to have allies in international discussions.
At the time, the accession of Spain and Portugal to the European Community was being discussed, and it seemed necessary to get to know these future partners. In the following years, the SONITO undertook studies and missions in these neighbouring countries. Soon meetings could be organised. The initiator of these meetings was Mr. Bouche, the President of Coopérative de Camaret, the largest French tomato processor.
Mr. Bouche, who was also the President of the FNCC, knew how to convince the other members of the SONITO of the necessity of meetings, first bilateral between Italy and France, then extended to Spain and Portugal. It was soon deemed necessary to include Greece in these discussions.
Despite the reluctance of some partners of the SONITO, Mr. Bouche decided to go ahead and meet the Greek professionals. The first meeting was epic. Mr. Basil Platon, already President of the Greek Canners Association, was originally very puzzled. A former canner in Egypt, he had been obliged to leave the country following the political take-over by Nasser, starting his career afresh in Greece. It was therefore understandable that he should be suspicious. As a man of dialogue however, he did not resist the arguments of the French delegation and soon understood that the underlying interests of both countries were converging. The meeting ended late in the night in a Piraeus restaurant around a magnificent shellfish platter which sealed a friendship and a loyalty that have been unfailing ever since.
THE EARLY DAYS
During the reunions between future members of the AMITOM, the idea of formalising these meetings was first raised by Mr. Pedro Gomendio. He was then the president of a newly formed Spanish association of processors, AGRUCON, that wanted to make its mark by departing from the old corporatist structures which then prevailed among Spanish canners. Mr. Gomendio’s family was installed in Morocco where they managed both a tomato processing plant producing powdered tomatoes and an agricultural estate producing citrus fruits. Mr. Gomendio was personally in charge of AGRAZ, the biggest tomato processing plant in Extremadura, specialised in tomato powder production. His family experience in citrus made him aware of the existence and modus operandi of the Citrus Mediterranean Liaison Committee (CLAM), based in Paris. The CLAM’s main objective was to clarify the situation of the citrus fruit market, on the basis of voluntary declarations by member countries. It included EC and non-EC countries such as Morocco and Israel. The idea followed naturally to create an organisation to enhance the dialogue between operators in the tomato processing sector in Mediterranean countries, inspired by the CLAM model. Once the name, logo and first draft of the statutes had been put together, a long series of meetings was held in different Mediterranean cities. The founding members discussed, improved and finally adopted the statutes. The first meeting took place in Avignon in December 1977 at the invitation of the SONITO. It was followed by a number of other meetings when participants got to know and appreciate each other. There were, however, some stormy meetings. In Lisbon in 1977, a delegation stormed out of the meeting room, promising never to come back. Discrete emissaries, amongst whom Mr. Braga da Cruz, President of the Portuguese Canners Association, intervened to pacify the debate and propose a compromise. They finally managed to obtain the return of the reluctant participants for the gala dinner offered by the Portuguese delegation. The dialogue could then be resumed. Gastronomy and conviviality played a major part in the difficult birth of the AMITOM. The gestation period was nearly as long as that of elephants who give birth after two long years. Finally, on 16 May 1979, 18 months after the first meeting, the official statutes of the AMITOM were finally signed in Rome, the ancient and highly symbolic town. Without going back to the Roman Empire, who united the people of the “Mare Nostrum”, one should remember that the treaty that created the European Community was signed there in 1958, so the AMITOM was in good company! Mr. Cantu, who represented Italy, became its first President and Jacques Miklichansky the General Delegate.
It has to be said that during the initial period, the French interbranch association SONITO contributed vastly to the functioning of AMITOM by making a large part of the information it collected available to the association.
The premise that inspired the SONITO’s attitude on this issue is that wisdom starts with a clear knowledge of the market situation. Its leaders believed that overproduction crises could be avoided if each country was correctly informed and decided to produce only what it could sell. In other words, it was believed that the lack of understanding of the real situation led to erroneous decisions that provoked crises on the market. Thus, the more information circulated, the more the crises could be avoided. However, no one can control the weather and it is very often “mother nature” who regulates production.
THE FIRST FEW YEARS
Meanwhile, the European Commission set up in 1978 a system of subsidies for processing that produced more balanced circumstances for the competition between EC and non-EC countries.
The beginnings of AMITOM were sometimes stormy, with some tension within the national delegations. For instance, AMITOM membership was one of the features of a severe crisis in the representation of Portuguese processors. Some of them left to temporarily create an independent association which did not belong to AMITOM. Everything has long been back in order and Portuguese processors are now represented by only one association, AIT, which is an AMITOM member. There have also been changes in the Italian representation. Private Italian processors were always been represented by two associations: AIIPA for the north and ANICAV for the south, until they became all represented by ANICAV in 2017. However, the growers’ organisations did have a political orientation. The “red” or left-wing cooperatives were represented by Lega, which remained a member of the AMITOM until the day when none of the remaining “red” cooperatives processed tomatoes any longer. At that point, the Federagro-Alimentare of Conf-Cooperative, traditionally more right-wing, became the representative of this sector within the AMITOM.
In 1981, during a long absence of the General Delegate due to a car accident, the leadership of the AMITOM was assumed by Bernard Bièche who then became officially the General Secretary. The tandem worked for more than twenty years to the satisfaction of the members who renewed their trust at each general meeting, until Jacques Miklichansky decided to take well deserved retirement in 2000.
Being sufficiently strong, the AMITOM could then consider welcoming new members from the Mediterranean region. Turkey joined in 1985, at the initiative of Mr. Enver Demirci who created the Turkish Canners Association for this purpose. Mr. Demirci has been an unfailing support for AMITOM and has known how to convince his partners of the advantages of having permanent links with competitors. Israel in 1986 and Tunisia in 1987 also joined the AMITOM through government agencies: the Tomato Product Board for Israel and the GICA for Tunisia. At the time, it was quite an achievement to unite around the same table countries which had such serious disputes as Israel and Arab countries. We were not shielded from political troubles caused by the Israel-Palestinian conflict and when the Israeli secret services blew up the headquarters of the PLO in Tunis, the Tunisian delegation left the AMITOM for two years.
During the 3rd Congress in 1998, under the chairmanship of Mr. Pasquale d’Acunzi, the AMITOM unanimously accepted two further countries for membership: Algeria, at the time represented by Mr. Boudiaf, and Jordan, represented by Mr. Al Nasser.
After modifying its statutes, the AMITOM was able to start receiving associate members from countries where no industry association existed. Since then, AMITOM has welcome several new members and associate members, and some have left but there are now 10 members and 8 associate members.
In 1998, during a long absence of the General Secretary, due to surgery that led to difficult complications, AMITOM affairs were dealt with by Mrs. Sophie Colvine, who had been working with him for TOMATO NEWS since 1995, with the efficient assistance of with the untiring Mrs. Josyane Chapelle and Mr. Jean-Pierre Giraudel, a French former administrator of the AMITOM whom for several years provided discreet and voluntary help in the administration and accounting departments. When Mr. Bernard Bièche took early retirement at the end of 2002, Mrs. Sophie Colvine was appointed General Secretary, a role she still fulfils to this day.
The 1989 congress in Avignon
As the tenth anniversary of the AMITOM was approaching, some form of celebration needed to be devised. The idea of a world congress was warmly received, as was the choice of Avignon as a host city. Mr. Bouche was willing to chair the organising committee and mobilised the regional forces.
Immediately after the decision was made and the first actions initiated, some criticism was raised. Some people forecast that this initiative would just swallow up money. Nevertheless, the AMITOM team persevered and preparations progressed with the very efficient help of the Avignon Conference Centre. A first contact was established with Professor Carlos Portas, then President of the Processed Vegetables Section of the International Society of Horticultural Science (ISHS). He had already organised two Symposiums on Processing Tomatoes (Evora, Portugal, in 1979 and Davis, California, in 1986). He was immediately favourable to the organisation of a third ISHS Symposium during the Congress. It was an original idea at the time as, up to then, symposiums only brought scientists together and there was little communication between scientists and the industry. The organisation in the same place of two events: a Congress in the morning and a Symposium in the afternoon was the opportunity to make two worlds meet, when they had previously had very little interaction. This Symposium was a real success with 64 presentations of papers or posters. It represented a major step in AMITOM’s involvement in coordinating research projects.
The simultaneous organisation of the Congress and the Symposium was a very rewarding experience. Everything had to be experimented by the organisation team, a group of united and motivated people. On this occasion, we met enthusiastic partners who have been supporting us ever since.
The Congress, which was held in the prestigious setting of the 15th Century Pope’s Palace in Avignon, was a real success, with 472 participants. Even the weather was up to it: the sun shone as it seldom does at the end of November, when it is often windy. The Congress was concluded by a speech by Mr. Silva Rodriguez who went on to become Director General for Agriculture at the European Commission.
At the end of a memorable evening reception in the very large Hall of Honour of the Avignon Popes’ Palace, French authorities granted an honours award to the four presidents of the foreign delegations: Alfonso Braga da Cruz for Portugal, Giorgo Cantu for Italy, Pedro Gomendio for Spain and Basil Platon for Greece.
The idea to have regular international meetings was born and when the time came to decide on the location for a second congress, Italy, the biggest tomato processing country within AMITOM, with nearly half of the processed tonnage, volunteered. After an internal debate within the Italian delegation, it was the ANICAV, presided by Mr. d’Acunzi, which decided to take up the challenge and organise the second World Congress in Sorrento. This event was held along similar lines to the Avignon one, with a simultaneous ISHS scientific symposium. The following was in Pamplona (Spain) in 1998, and after the World Processing Tomato Council was founded, the decision was taken to hold the World Processing Tomato Congress every two years, alternating between the Mediterranean region and the rest of the world, and this organisation endures to this day, with the last congress held in Greece in June 2018 and the next one due to take place in San Juan Argentina in March 2020.
A new event is added this year to the list with the first Tomato News Conference in Avignon in May 2019 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of AMITOM and the 30th anniversary of the creation of Tomato News. If it is successful, the conferences could be organised every two years, in alternance with the WPTC congresses.
A few months before the Avignon Congress, in the Spring of 1989, the TOMATO NEWS magazine was founded by Bernard Bièche in order to make available throughout the world all the information concerning the tomato processing sector. After the 1st Congress, AMITOM decided to create the World Information Centre for the Tomato Processing Industry (CMITI). Mr. Bièche became its director and made available to CMITI the archives of TOMATO NEWS and all the documentation he had collected since 1975. The magazine quickly expanded its readership and established itself as the best source of information on and for the tomato processing industry around the world. The monthly bilingual (French/English) magazine was sold on a subscription basis in more than 45 countries worldwide, reaching 2000 decision-makers in more than 400 companies, from seed breeders to end consumers, as well as growers and processors, equipment manufacturers and packaging company executives.
Between 2005 and 2017, the publication of the monthly magazine was subcontracted to Tomatoland Information Services.
In 2017, after a long period of consultation, AMITOM and its partner WPTC decided to make the information available free of charge to everyone in the industry and move to an all-digital service with the launch of a new website www.tomatonews.com. The service is managed by a new limited company TOMATO NEWS SAS in which AMITOM and WPTC remain majority shareholders, with the additional investment from private investors. Martin Stilwell is the company's President.
Mr. François-Xavier Branthôme who has been writing for the magazine since the year 2000 remains the main News Editor. Mrs Madeleine Royère-Koonings is acting as Community Manager and Mrs Sophie Colvine (AMITOM & WPTC General Secretary) acts as Project Coordinator. Mrs. Josyane Chapelle, who started working for the magazine in 1990, is again in charge of the accounts after trying unsuccessfully to leave the tomato world several times to take a well-deserved retirement!