The true cost of tomatoes and bad press

06/15/2011 09:25:00 AM
Tom Karst

Food blogger Mark Bittman’s June 14 column with The New York Times online is worth a look. Titled "The True Cost of Tomatoes," the column and follow-on consumer comments make a revealing insight on how the industry is viewed.

From Bittman’s beginning:

 Mass-produced tomatoes have become redder, more tender and slightly more flavorful than the crunchy orange “cello-wrapped” specimens of a couple of decades ago, but the lives of the workers who grow and pick them haven’t improved much since Edward R. Murrow’s revealing and deservedly famous Harvest of Shame report of 1960, which contained the infamous quote, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”

But bit by bit things have improved some, a story that’s told in detail and with insight and compassion by Barry Estabrook in his new book, “Tomatoland.” We can actually help them improve further.

 

Bittman goes on to describe growing regions in Florida, the hard life of tomato harvesters and efforts to increase grower wages by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). From Bittman:

 

The breakthrough for the CIW came in 2005, when after enormous consumer pressure Yum! Brands, which controls Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, signed the agreement. (And you know what? Good for them.) Since then, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, the country’s largest food service operators (Sodexo, Aramark and Compass Group) and Whole Foods have signed as well.

Progress, clearly. What’s missing are traditional supermarket chains, and the CIW has targeted — largely for geographical reasons — Ahold (the parent company of Stop & Shop and Giant); Publix (the dominant chain in Florida); Kroger (next to Wal-Mart the biggest food retailer in the country); and Trader Joe’s, which, in an attempt at “transparency” (odd for a chain known for its secrecy), published a letter explaining why it was refusing to sign the agreement. Really, guys? If McDonald’s and Wal-Mart can sign a labor agreement, it can’t be that onerous; you should do it just for karma’s sake.

 

If the industry did everything well-meaning liberals would advise, one wonders if there would be a tomato industry left in Florida and any domestic tomatoes to buy in the winter months. One of the readers’ comments illustrates the misperceptions about tomato supply and demand, advising "buy at your local farmers market."


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