Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Unsavory Product
The Tragedy of the American Tomato

By David G. Young

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, June 10, 2008 --  

Consumers are right to avoid supermarket tomatoes, but salmonella contamination should be the least of their concerns.

The widespread consumer panic over salmonella-contaminated tomatoes has spread to west Florida growers who risk losing $40 million1if their product rots before reaching markets. Growers here are defensively insisting that there is no proof they are the source of the outbreak that has sickened 167 people and hospitalized 23.2 But while the Food and Drug Administration has eliminated growers from a number of states and countries as the source of the outbreak, Florida is not on the cleared list.3

And the very fact that the FDA has been unable to pinpoint the source of the outbreak is indicative of the huge problem with America's tomato growers. The major restaurant chains such as McDonald's and Taco Bell as well as the regional grocers that have halted sales of fresh tomatoes get them from a national network of suppliers that is on such a massive and distributed scale that it is difficult to know the source of any given tomato.

This behemoth industry produces an inexpensive and consistent product year round -- and a consistently tasteless product to boot. Since the early 1970s, America's big tomato growers have been using artificial ripening to make their product easier to ship. Tomatoes are picked hard and green, crated, then sent to a processing facility where they are washed by the millions in a bath of chlorinated water, re-crated, then sent to warehouses where they are flooded with ethylene gas.5 Within a day or so, this gas turns the pale green skin of the tomatoes to a pale pink, in a process of chemical change that is similar to ripening.

But as anybody who has cut into the hard, white, tasteless center of an industrial tomato can attest, artificial ripening is incomparable to the results of natural vine ripening, which produces a deep red juicy center, soft texture, and strong, rich flavor. Why would large producers tragically ruin one of the world's, most delicious natural gifts -- a fruit that revolutionized the cuisine of Italy after it was brought back from the New World -- by turning it into a hard, flavorless pink ping pong ball?

The answer is simple: to major producers, the soft juicy texture of a ripe tomato makes it impossible to put it through industrial processing. The chemical bath and mechanized crating would pulverize real vine ripened tomatoes long before they reach the chain restaurants and supermarkets that sell them.

With the latest salmonella scare, those tasteless tomatoes risk not just ruining your dinner, but risk ruining your whole week with acute intestinal distress. The simplest explanation for the outbreak is that a single processing plant's chemical bath was contaminated with the bacteria for a period of time, spreading the germs to millions of tomatoes. And because the industrial system scatters crates of tomatoes widely and treats them as an interchangeable commodity, nobody has been able to figure out where the contaminated tomatoes came from.

Savvy consumers have long known to avoid the supermarket tomato. They get good, tasty, vine ripened tomatoes from farmers' markets. These small markets rely on local producers, or folks who truck them in carefully from nearby states. The product tastes good, but is relatively inconvenient to buy, and impossible to obtain out of season.

Fortunately, a solution to this problem appeared a few years ago, when the Philadelphia-based Procacci Brothers built a Florida subsidiary to grow a new hybrid tomato called the UglyRipe -- a vine ripened tomato with a ribbed and oblong shape that was better able to stand up to the rigors of shipping.5 Individually packed in foam mesh to protect the soft skin, the UglyRipe tomato was kept out of northern markets from 2004 until last year because the Florida Tomato Committee (a regional marketing organization of major growers backed by federal law) banned it.

The ban was nominally based on the tomato's non-uniform shape, but clearly was intended to stifle the tastier competition. An FDA ruling in January 2007 returned the tomato to northern markets.6 Though expensive at $2.50 apiece, the UglyRipe tomato is a welcome taste of summer even in northern winters.

Given their dubious track record of selling shoddy products, bullying competitors, and now potentially sickening hundreds of people with unsanitary industrial practices, Florida's major tomato growers deserve no consumer sympathy. Rather than temporarily avoid their product over food safety concerns, consumers should permanently boycott these tomatoes over a sense of competitive fairness -- and demand for actual tomato flavor.

Related Web Columns:

Taste be Damned, September 5, 2006

Organic Feces, May 5, 1998


1. Brandenton Herald, Local Tomato Growers Fear Disaster, June 10, 2008

2. CBS News, Tomato Industry Threatened By Outbreak, June 10, 2008

3. Brandenton Herald, Ibid.

4. World Trade Magazine, Bringing the Backyard to Distant Markets, June 3, 2008

5. New York Times, Even for a Tomato, Looks Aren't Everything, January 17, 2007

6. Ibid.