How Do You Eat Tomatoes Ethically?

Barry Estabrook's striking book Tomatoland explains two things with perfect clarity: why tomatoes in your grocery store taste awful, and why you probably should stop buying them if they come from Florida. Here's his take:

1) Florida supplies an enormous portion of the USA's out-of-season fresh tomatoes, as well as slicing tomatoes used throughout the food service industry. These tomatoes are picked green, ripened en route, and arrive perfectly red and tasteless in our stores and restaurants during winter and spring.

2) Because of the poor soil quality and warm climate in Florida, growers there use up to six times the pesticides and fungicides used on tomatoes grown in California (the USA's other primary tomato region).

3) Worse, labor conditions for people picking our out-of-season tomatoes in Florida range from mediocre to deplorable. Safety standards are highly questionable--especially concerning pesticide use in close proximity to fieldworkers. Worse, in the past several years there have been documented cases of slavery among contract work crews hired by major Florida growers. Yes, that's right: slavery.

4) California growers, in general, have better labor practices and pesticide use practices. The problem is, California supplies the vast majority of North American canned tomatoes, not fresh/out-of-season tomatoes. Casual Kitchen readers should instantly see a possible solution here for their tomato needs: when tomatoes are out of season, stick to buying canned.

5) In other words, if you buy an out-of-season, fresh tomato, chances are it's from Florida. And that tomato was likely sprayed, grown and picked under suspect conditions. If you buy canned tomatoes, they were probably grown under better--and safer--conditions.

6) Finally, that perfectly red out-of-season tomato sitting in your grocery store (or on top of your restaurant hamburger) is almost guaranteed to taste like styrofoam. And yet people still buy them. Why? Because consumers want something red on their plate, on their salad, or in their sandwiches.

So, with this as backdrop, what steps should concerned consumers take when buying tomatoes? Should we avoid out-of-season tomatoes because of the practices of the Florida tomato industry? Will this cause growers to improve their practices, or will it cause growers to squeeze workers still more?

What's the right thing to do?

I don't know. But I can share what we are doing here at Casual Kitchen since we've read Tomatoland: We've stopped purchasing of out-of-season tomatoes. Why? Well, for one thing, I never did like overpaying for tomatoes that, more often than not, taste like nothing. But I also have concerns about the way out-of-season tomatoes are grown. So, if we do have a pressing need for tomatoes out of season, we stick to canned tomatoes--which we know are most likely from California, not from Florida, and thus are more likely grown under better conditions and with fewer pesticides.

Readers, what about you?

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Jenn said...

Oy, a dilemma indeed. And if you buy canned tomatoes then you are increasing your exposure to BPA, which incidentally leaches faster in acidic conditions. Does anyone sell tomatoes in glass jars instead of cans?

Anonymous said...

Today anyway, I am just happy that this is what we have to worry about...

Are heirloom varieties any better?
What about those little orange ones?

Tragic Sandwich said...

We eat very few fresh tomatoes--Mr. Sandwich doesn't care for them--but I am most likely to buy them at my local farmers market rather than from the store (where much of the produce has no flavor whether it's in or out of season).

As for cans and BPA, I've seen recommendations to buy tomatoes from Pomi and other brands that use similar packaging. My closest grocery store doesn't carry them, so I'm going to look elsewhere for my shelf-friendly tomatoes.

Stuart Carter said...

you can buy the superpremiumexpensive glass jars of tomatoes.

Or you can them yourself ;)

Sally said...

I haven't purchased an out-of-season tomato in years. I also never buy them in a grocery store. It has nothing to do with conditions or pesticide use. It has to do with quality. I don't want to waste my money on a tasteless tomato.

Even during tomato season, tomatoes at grocery stores are less than Ideal. I buy tomatoes at the farmer's market or one of several produce stands near here.

Once tomatoes are out of season I don't make anything that requires fresh tomatoes. I do use canned. I have canned tomatoes and tomato sauce in the past and I may have to go back to doing that.

Melissa said...

Everything Sally just said! None out of season, farmers markets are the only good ones even IN season. I do buy hothouse grown cherry ones for salads. Are those also bad? I actually don't know.

I will add that I cook with canned tomatoes year round. Lots. I always have a supply of crushed, petite diced, sauce and paste on my shelf. I don't worry much about chemicals because I already know there is no way I will cook without them.

Wet Coasters said...

After reading Tomato Land, we decided to grow our own. Tomatoes are super easy to grow in a pot, all you need is enough sun. Then in the winter we grow two pots indoors under a T5 florescent light. This supplies us with fresh picked tomatoes year round! And they taste Delish!

Joanne said...

I don't buy any out of season tomatoes anymore, after hearing about the deplorable practices in Florida. I'm all about canned tomatoes instead, and only those brands that don't source from Florida. When I buy fresh tomatoes, it's in the summer from the farmer's market!

Jean said...

Thanks for the info! Now I know what to tell my partner (he doesn't buy them often, but it happens) that beyond flavour there's also distance, health and ethics involved. I have some home-canned and some roasted and frozen tomatoes from my garden that I use in winter.

Esme said...

Good info!

I find I'd rather eat mostly tasteless tomatoes in winter than no tomatoes at all, but now I'll find ways to use canned tomatoes more often, and maybe eventually get to growing and canning my own tomatoes.

What's the word on organic tomatoes? How do they fit into this situation?

Sally said...

I use Red Gold canned tomato products ( The tomatoes are grown within 200 miles of Elwood, IN (northeast of Indianapolis) and canned in Elwood. This company also produces RedPack tomatoes that are distributed in the eastern states as well as a couple of other brands.

Nearly all of the tomatoes I buy at the farmer's market are organic, though they may not be advertised as organic. Tomatoes aren't on the "dirty dozen" lists of produce that one should always buy organic. Neither are they on the "clean fifteen" lists of produce that has the least pesticide residue. So, buy organic if you can, but if you can't afford them, I don't think it's a problem.

I'm thinking about growing some this summer in containers on my patio. I'll grow both Roma's and some kind of slicing tomato.

Salixbabylonica said...

My parents always grew their own tomatoes, but after I moved out, as an apartment dweller I got in the habit of buying the grocery store tomatoes regardless of season. These past two summers, we've been in a house with a yard, so we started growing our own again. I remember taking a bite of my very first homegrown tomato and actually gasping out loud. It had been so long since I'd had a "real" tomato that I'd forgotten how incredible they taste. There's just no comparison. After that, I just can't tolerate paying so much for bright red cardboard in the winter. The information about the mistreatment of the workers is just another incentive to never buy them. When there are so many other recipes to make, it's easy enough to save the ones requiring fresh tomatoes for summer.