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."

Another opines:

 

This is a tough one. A penny a pound may result in higher wages, but what stops the farmer from raising the rent on the migrant housing or the prices in the company store?

Would it not be better to avoid these tomatoes altogether? Surely any farmers’ market has locally grown tomatoes. Or, grow them yourself. I do, and I’m no master gardener. If you don’t have a garden, many varieties thrive as potted plants on patios, balconies or in sunny windows. When they ripen you can freeze them, dry them, and can them. Make juice, or sauce or stewed tomatoes.

And, even in 21st century America, if tomatoes are out of season and you haven’t any left in your freezer or pantry, you CAN survive without buying these from Florida. But then the migrants may have no work and no wages. I’d really like to hear the Times resident ethicist weigh in on this. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to grow my own, buy locally, fill the freezer, and do without.

 

For the industry, what is the answer? The first thing the industry must do is hear the emotion of consumers on this issue. While there is a "seamy underbelly" to the tomato industry - as with any other - there is also a story to tell beyond what Bittman relates. How are growers helping the economy, the U.S. food supply and the welfare of their workers? Tell that story.



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