3Q and the Tomato Paste War

Dealing with Lilliputian cans of sauce and questionable quantification quirkiness on our retail shelves

Tomato paste is mentioned in Guatemala’s Constitution. I have yet to find the paragraph, section, and clause, but I’m certain it is there.

The law in question requires all cans of tomato paste sold here to be the 6-ounce variety. You may occasionally find tomato paste in larger cans, such as at Jim’s Pana Meats in Panajachel, but these were smuggled in.

When I moved to Guatemala as a single person, this was no big deal. But now, with a family of five, these Lilliputian cans make cooking a chore: endless spooning that yields a pile of trash big enough to cover Staten Island. Once, in the desperate search for expedience, I tried to vacuum the paste from the cans with a turkey baster inherited from my grandmother. You can imagine how well that worked.

The law applies to every retailer, from the mammoth Hiper Paiz all the way down to Doña Pepa’s phonebooth-sized tienda in the remotest hamlet. It applies to all three suppliers; none departs from the rule.

It may be rooted in centuries of hand-to-mouth culture, which conditions folks of sparse means to buy everything in the smallest available quantity. This is why Doña Pepa sells many items sueltecito (one-by-one) instead of in bulk. Instead of boxes of matchbooks, she sells individual books, to say nothing of sueltecito cigarettes and gumballs. She also sells Fab (detergent) in packets whose contents wouldn’t fill a salt shaker, and tiny toothpaste tubes that Mr. Bean wouldn’t have to squeeze half-empty when packing light for a trip.

All this is much costlier for the end-user, but it keeps Doña Pepa afloat. Yet surely Hiper Paiz, which buys and sells candy and Fab by the containerload, could sell bigger cans of tomato paste.

The absence of such a commodity, i.e., reasonably sized cans of a major food staple (for which there is no doubt a latent demand) reminds me of the Chicken War between Germany and the United States in the 1960s. This war was less spectacular than the war these powers fought in the 1940s. For this reason alone, you will never see the Chicken War on the History Channel.

Up to 1963, U.S. automakers monopolized the domestic pickup market. But then Volkswagen introduced a pickup that shared the chassis of the venerable VW bus. The VW pickups were almost bulletproof, had hearse-sized beds and ran on fumes. Consequently, Detroit lobbied Congress, which imposed protectionist duties against VW pickups; overnight, their price shot up 70%. Germany retaliated with crushing duties on frozen chickens, of which the United States was the main supplier. Hence, the Chicken War.

All producers of tomato paste sold here are multinationals, so perhaps a “Tomato-paste War” has been going on without our knowledge, with big cans excluded through protectionism.

Some other foodstuffs of the liquid-or-sauce persuasion are subject to another bizarrity which I call “questionable quantification quirkiness” or “3Q.” This is the practice of labeling, say, a small cup of yogurt as containing 200 grams, but labeling a bigger one as containing a liter. One quantity is given by weight, and the other by volume, even though we are not only talking about the same item, but the same brand.

Think about this. When some quantities are given by volume and some by weight (3Q), then you need another conversion factor to determine which package, big or small, is the better deal. Before you can do the math, you must know the density of yogurt. Who is going to know that?

3Q may be a response to the increasing awareness that frugality lies not in buying the smallest quantity, but in buying larger quantities that are (usually) cheaper per unit of measure. That big bag of Fab may wipe out your daily tortilla budget, but you’ll not have to buy more until the rains stop. In the black-and-white commercials from my childhood, they called such packages “economy size.” Central Americans are now on to this; more and more you see them in stores savvily dividing prices of bottles of oil by their quantity.

Unlike the phenomenon of chintzy tomato paste cans, 3Q is relatively new. You can’t blame suppliers for the same reason that you can’t blame the airlines for introducing frequent-flyer programs. They have to compete with the airline that invented frequent-flyer programs in the first place; not boarding the bandwagon is marketplace suicide. So I’m not accusing yogurt and oil producers of collusion, even though 3Q has yet to be codified in Guatemala’s Constitution, so to speak.

Another expression of 3Q is found in farmacias. When you buy a bottle of pills, for instance, you buy a pill count. But when you buy four or six pills sueltecitos (according to the prescription), you are buying pill strengths. Are there 250 microgams of Widgetol in those pills? Or 400? Or 750? With this form of 3Q, at least, the “density” (the pill strength) is indicated. So you can do the math.

But I have noticed that wherever you can buy pills either by bulk or sueltecitos, the latter is far costlier, even up to a factor of eight. For this reason, I always just buy a whole bottle. The second time I need that particular medicine for someone, the savings are realized. On every subsequent occasion, the medicine is free.

As for tomato paste, my wife and I just bought what might be our solution: a 38-gallon cooking pot. Next time that fresh tomatoes are cheap, we will fill the pot and simmer a gob of tomatoes into paste (it takes four hours at low heat) and freeze the result. We will save money and not dishonor Guatemala’s Constitution. And besides, homemade always tastes better.

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