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denise balkissoon

The ketchup drama continues.

How well-meaning Brian Fernandez was in February, when the Orillia, Ont., resident vowed to buy French's ketchup forever, as a gesture of loyalty to his country. French's is made from tomatoes from nearby Leamington, which lost hundreds of jobs when Heinz closed its factory in 2014. How surprised I'm sure he is by the non-stop flow of viscous – sorry, vicious – opinionating there has been on the contentious condiment ever since.

After the early, all-caps "BUY LOCAL" exhortations appeared in comment sections, things got trickier. First came Loblaw's decision to take French's ketchup off the shelves, which the grocery store giant said was because the product wasn't selling, though it was probably because French's was "cannibalizing" sales of Loblaw's own President's Choice stuff.

Then came discussions of what local means. French's ketchup is made in Ohio of Ontario tomatoes. This requires environmentally untenable shipping back and forth across the border, but provides local jobs. Then again, those local jobs might not be good ones – other ketchup commentators pointed out that the juicy fruits were likely picked by some of the thousands of migrant workers who spend farming season in Leamington. If we all buy French's, can they get decent health care?

Meanwhile, Western Canada wants to know why it should buy Ontario tomatoes when we keep dissing their oil, and why the country hasn't ever rallied behind mustard made from prairie-grown seeds.

Yikes. I think the vinegar is overpowering the sugar in this batch.

The Ketchup Wars of 2016 are hardly surprising; the condiment has been contentious for more than a quarter-century. In the early days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, Congress cut $1-billon (U.S.) from school lunch programs, leaving individual boards with less money, but the same requirement to provide a nutritious midday meal. Some clever bureaucrat proposed, perhaps not seriously, that since produce was expensive, cost savings might be found in a few reclassifications: pickles could be considered vegetables, or ketchup categorized as more-or-less pure tomato paste. Everybody freaked out. Although Mr. Reagan isn't on record as actually saying "ketchup is a vegetable," in the memories of many he might as well have.

Red sauces again dominated headlines in 1992, when as George Costanza announced on Seinfeld, salsa overtook ketchup as the No. 1 condiment sold in the United States (it has gone back and forth since, and both occasionally lose to mayonnaise).

Commentary at the time largely focused on the increasing mainstream appetite for "ethnic" food. A New York Times piece from that year uses the term 28 times, and quoted a Heinz spokesperson insisting that higher dollar sales were irrelevant because ketchup had "greater market penetration," which means that although a lot of people were eating a lot of salsa, way more people had a frighteningly old bottle of clumpy ketchup lurking in the back of their refrigerators, so there.

The Times pointed out the underlying cultural shift – Asians and Latinos were set to make up 15 per cent of the U.S. population by 2000 – but back in the bouncy '90s, there doesn't seem to have been much demographic doomsdaying. If 2015 had been the first year of the great salsa upset, Donald Trump would surely be braying about a sin tax on tortilla chips.

The question is, why ketchup? Why, of all of the hundreds of food products that cross the border every day has this innocuous sauce now become the screen on which we project our patriotism?

It could be because it's red, like our flag, or because we're still annoyed at the United States for that whole "freedom fries" thing. It might be because we suspect that most restaurant bottles bearing Heinz labels likely contain cheaper ketchup anyway.

But probably it's because, like Brian Fernandez, we all want to be good citizens, using our food budget to provides good things for the people in our community in these turbulent, globalized times.

Ketchup, though, is a complicated condiment. The goal at hand is noble, but it just doesn't come in an easy-squeeze bottle.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated that President's Choice uses tomatoes from the U.S. for its ketchup. In fact, the company uses Canadian tomatoes.

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