Peeling back the story of the supermarket tomato

Any self-respecting foodie wouldn't go near one of those perfectly shaped, flat-bottomed, bruise-resistant, orange-red orbs that we call tomatoes.

They're found in abundance in the produce sections of the nation's supermarkets and we all know they're tasteless. But they sell because they're cheaper than those organically grown, they're available all year long and they allow us to add something red to our salads. 

So there wasn't much suspense when I picked up "Tomatoland," at the behest of my friend Sasha, and dug in. The book is touted as an expose of Florida's tomato-growing industry and author Barry Estabrook brings considerable cred to the task. He's a respected food journalist who's written for Gourmet magazine and other national publications, and was the founding editor of Eating Well magazine.

The book is based on his James Beard Award-winning article, "The Price of Tomatoes," and it goes a long way, as the subtitle says, toward explaining "how modern industrial agriculture destroyed our most alluring fruit."

It's an ugly story, to be sure. Florida's sandy soils, humid weather and susceptibility to insects induce large-scale growers to saturate their crops with tons of pesticides and herbicides. Tomatoes are picked while they are hard and green and artificially gassed until they can pass for ripe. Worst of all, migrant and seasonal farmworkers still do the dirty, low-paid work, harvesting crops by hand while  getting sprayed with chemicals, living in cramped, deplorable housing and, in some cases, laboring as modern-day slaves for unscrupulous crew bosses.

To his credit, Estabrook cites the work of newspaper reporters in Fort Myers and Palm Beach who have catalogued years of abuses by numerous bad actors. He draws on that body of work in citing improvements in pay and working conditions negotiated by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a nonprofit group representing workers in the impoverished town (rhymes with broccoli) that's known as the tomato capital of the United States.

Where Estabrook shines is in telling the stories of most of the key players in Florida's fresh tomato industry. He interviews food scientists, corporate executives, the manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, a U.S. attorney who has prosecuted human trafficking cases, Latino field laborers,  crusading lawyers and, finally, smaller-scale organic farmers who sell their fresh product locally and still manage to pay their workers a living wage.

If you've seen or read "Food Inc.," "Forks Over Knives," "Fast Food Nation" or "The Omnivore's Dilemma," you'll understand where this book is coming from. It's another nail in the coffin of The Way We Used To Eat, before we came to our senses and realized that many of our nation's health problems are directly linked to the foods we eat.

I don't consider myself a foodie, just an ordinary consumer who's become increasingly aware that how our food is produced and where it comes from deserve as much consideration as taste and appearance. In this instance, Estabrook presents enough evidence to turn me away from Florida tomatoes for good.

Thanks for the loan of the book, Sasha. 

Book cover:

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