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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