Why You Should Avoid Mass-Produced Tomatoes

I’m going to try to never again buy a supermarket tomato.

Partly that’s because they have so little taste -- a sad fact I’m reminded of every summer when we buy our tomatoes at a local farmer’s market. Any resemblance between a locally-grown tomato and the industrial tomatoes sold in supermarkets and restaurants, particularly in winter, is strictly coincidental.

Tomatoland cover artMostly, though, it’s because I now understand what goes into the production of a tomato in Florida -- the nation’s No. 1 tomato-growing state, which supplies virtually all of the fresh, field-grown tomatoes sold between October and June. That’s thanks to a terrific new book called, appropriately, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.

This eye-opening expose by veteran food writer Barry Estabrook, who formerly contributed to Gourmet, now writes for The Atlantic and blogs at his own site, Politics of the Plate, is a worthy addition to the growing number of books on my shelf that takes us behind the scenes of today’s alimentary-industrial complex, books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish. From bookstores to the blogosphere, food writing these days is smarter and more tough-minded than ever.

The Florida tomato story isn’t new. Writing in The New Yorker back in 1977, Thomas Whiteside chronicled the sorry state of supermarket tomatoes. In this deeply-reported book, Estabrook finds that not much has changed since then.

There’s lots not to like about the way tomatoes are grown in Florida, but the most memorable scenes in Tomatoland portray the Dickensian conditions under which migrant workers toil in Florida’s tomato fields. Children as young as 12 do farm work. Workers are paid, at least in part, by the number of containers of fruit they pick, a system that often leaves them with less than the minimum wage. They are on call daily, but work only when needed. They get no sick benefits, no vacation and if they are hurt on the job, they pay their own medical bills, assuming they can afford to see see a doctor. Estabrook writes:

This might explain why the life expectancy of a migrant worker in the United States is only 49 years … migrant workers typically make between $10,000 and $12,000 a year, a figure that is distorted because it includes the higher wages paid to field supervisors.

Wait, it gets worse. While earning poverty wages for doing backbreaking work, tomato pickers risk being exposed to pesticides. While regulations require those workers who handle pesticides to use protective eye-wear, gloves, aprons and respirators, the rules are poorly enforced. Because Florida’s sandy soil is not well suited for agriculture, growers

pump the soil full of chemical fertilizers and can blast the plants with more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides, including some of the most toxic in agribusiness’s arsenal … The toll includes eye and respiratory ailments, exposure to known carcinogens and babies born with horrendous birth defects.

… An acre of Florida tomatoes gets hit with five times as much fungicide and six times as much pesticide as an acre of California tomatoes.

In a particularly heartbreaking chapter, Estabrook details the struggles of three women who lived in a labor camp near Immokalee, Fla., and had children born within a few weeks of each other with severe birth defects. Barry Estabrook

Big brands, it turns out, are part of the problem. When a coalition of farm workers brought pressure on Burger King, Taco Bell and McDonald’s to pay more for Florida tomatoes and set aside the money for the workers, the “vice president of food safety, quality assurance and regulatory affairs” at Burger King responded by going online and using an assumed name to smear the organizers of the farmworkers as “the lowest form of life.” Nice, huh. Eventually, the fast-food outlets came around to support the workers.

The strangest thing about this story is that although the social and environmental costs of growing tomatoes in Florida is high, the benefits to consumers are low -- and by design. Florida tomatoes are bred so that they can be picked and shipped with minimal damage, last a long time on store shelves and present a consistent appearance. Taste? Well, as Estabrook explains, “the structure of a tomato … makes breeding for both taste and toughness a difficult balancing act.”

Harry Klee, a University of Florida professor who is trying to design better tomatoes, puts it this way:

As you focus on making the tomato bigger and firmer, you are ruining the flavor, pure and simple … What we have ended up with is something that’s large but has basically had all the good points diluted out of it. They’ve essentially taken the package and added water.

Estabrook’s conclusion: “Florida’s tomato fields provide a stark example of what a food system looks like when all elements of sustainability are violated.”

My conclusion: No more Florida tomatoes for me.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user The Ewan.