Supermarket tomatoes may look delicious — smooth, red and unblemished — but for the most part, they taste like nothing at all.
"I think tomatoes in grocery stores are like food porn in the purest sense of the word," author Barry Estabrook tells Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "They tantalize you, they make you think, but they don't deliver."
Estabrook is the author of a new book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. It lays out why supermarket tomatoes tend to taste so bad — and how they got that way.
Estabrook places most of the blame on consumers who want fresh tomatoes year-round, even in the depths of winter. "Depending on the time of year, at certain times of the winter, 90 percent of the fresh tomatoes that we find in the supermarkets are grown in Florida," he says.
Florida is warm in the winter, and it's an easy trailer-truck ride to most of the country. But Florida is also about the worst possible place to grow tomatoes. Both the climate and the soil are completely unsuitable, Estabrook says, so farmers must drench their fields in pesticides and fertilizers to have any hope of a crop.
On top of that, the tomatoes you see in those supermarkets have been bred for high yields and durability, not flavor. "As a farmer once said — an honest farmer — 'I don't get paid a cent for flavor,'" Estabrook says.
There's an even darker side to the modern commercial tomato, too, he says. Up until recently, workers on many of Florida's vast industrial tomato farms were basically slaves. "People being bought and sold like animals," Estabrook says. "People being shackled in chains. People being beaten for either not working hard enough, fast enough, or being too weak or sick to work. People actually being shot and killed for trying to escape. That sounds like 1850's slavery to me, and that, in fact, is going on, or has gone on."
Estabrook adds that there have been seven successful slavery prosecutions in Florida in the past 15 years. The situation is beginning to improve, he adds. It began with a group of tomato pickers called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, named after the Florida town where they live and work.
The group had been lobbying since the early 1990s for a plan that included a pay raise and some basic workers' rights. "What they started concentrating on was the end-customers," Estabrook says. "They started, actually, with the Taco Bell restaurant chain."
After four years of protests and boycotts, Taco Bell agreed to sign on and support the group's plan. Other chains soon followed, and even the powerful Florida tomato growers' committee came on board.
"In the last seven or eight months, there's just been a sea change in labor relations in the Florida tomato industry," he says. But there's still a long way to go. Most supermarkets, with the exception of Whole Foods, do not support the plan.
So what's a hungry tomato-lover to do in December? Estabrook himself doesn't eat tomatoes out of season, but he says if you must have one, look for a hydroponic tomato from Canada. "And hope that there's some taste in it."
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GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have you wondered why most supermarket tomatoes taste pretty bland? Well, a book today, "Tomatoland," answers that question. And for author Barry Estabrook, the journey to finding that answer began one day when he was driving down a round in rural Florida. And right in front of him, he saw a truck. It was piled high with what appeared to be green Granny Smith apples.
BARRY ESTABROOK: When I pulled out fast, three of them sailed off the truck narrowly missing my windshield. At the first stoplight, I got a closer look. The shoulder of the road was littered with green tomatoes, so plasticine and so identical they could have been stamped up by a machine. Most look smooth but unblemished. A few had cracks in their skins. Not one was smashed. A 10-foot drop followed by a 60-mile-per-hour impact with pavement is no big deal to a modern agribusiness tomato.
RAZ: Estabrook followed the green tomato trail all the way through Florida's giant farms and down into South America to trace the fruit's wild ancestors. And what he found along the way might make you think twice before you bite into your next BLT.
Barry Estabrook's book is called "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." And he joins me now from the studios of Vermont Public Radio. Barry Estabrook, welcome.
ESTABROOK: Well, thank you. Good to be here.
RAZ: Take me through the life of a modern supermarket tomato.
ESTABROOK: Well, depending on the time of year, at certain times of the winter, 90 percent of the fresh tomatoes that we find in the supermarkets are grown in Florida.
RAZ: It's somewhat of an irony because you say in the book, and right off the bat, you say Florida is probably the least suitable place to grow tomatoes. So why is that?
ESTABROOK: Well, there's two main problems. One is Florida is notoriously humid. And the humidity is a perfect environment for all of the funguses, rust and insect pests that prey on Florida tomatoes. So it's just a horrible climate. And the other thing is tomatoes in Florida, most of them, are in fact grown in sand. It's no different than the stuff on Daytona Beach, and it lacks nutrition in the same, exact way.
RAZ: How did Florida become the center or the main sort of area where American tomatoes are grown then? I mean, if the soil is bad, if the climate's terrible, which means you have to use a lot of pesticides, why did it happen in Florida?
ESTABROOK: It happened for the simple reason of commerce and nothing to do with biology or horticulture. It was that Florida, during the winter months, happens to be within a day or two tractor trailer ride from three quarters of the population of the country.
RAZ: Now, you argue in the book - and I will say I agree with you - that most supermarket tomatoes in America taste awful or they have no taste at all.
ESTABROOK: The reason is, as a farmer said - an honest farmer - he said, I don't get paid a cent for flavor. I get paid by the pound, pure and simple. So for the last 50 years, all of our best minds in commercial tomato plant breeding have been breeding varieties for one thing, yield. And when they're picked from the field, they are absolutely green. And they're taken to a warehouse, and they're exposed to ethylene gas. And what that does is it makes the tomato turn red. It won't get any more flavor than it had when it went in there, but it will turn obligingly red.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Barry Estabrook. His new book is called "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." Barry, a big part of this book is not just about the taste of tomatoes but about the process of getting them to market. And you describe this world, and I'm using your words, you describe a world where slave labor is employed.
ESTABROOK: Let me run down a few little items here: people being bought and sold like animals, people being shackled in chains, people being beaten for either not working hard enough, fast enough or being too weak or sick to work, people actually being shot and killed for trying to escape. That sounds like 1850's slavery to me. And that, in fact, is going on or has gone on. They were - in the last 15 years, there have been seven successful prosecutions, slavery prosecutions in the State of Florida. Even, you know, the ones that are not being held as slaves probably work at the very, very bottom of the American workforce.
They receive no union benefits. They receive no benefits of any sort. They get no vacation pay. They get no medical insurance. They get no overtime even if they work more than 40 hours a week or more than eight hours a day. They're paid basically per pound that they pick. If it rains, they don't make a cent that day.
RAZ: You describe that pesticides that have to be used and presumably, these workers are exposed to a lot of those pesticides.
ESTABROOK: Well, in fact, the official Florida government handbook for commercial tomato growers lists 110 different herbicides, pesticides and fungicides that a farmer can apply to his tomatoes over the course of a season. And sadly, I've talked to three dozen workers, and I asked all of them the same question, you know, have you ever been sprayed. They said, man, all the time, two, three times a week.
RAZ: A few years ago, some of these farm workers in Florida started to organize, actually. And there was a campaign backed by some labor unions and student groups and their conditions apparently improved. What happened?
ESTABROOK: In the last seven or eight months, there's just been a sea change in labor relations in the Florida tomato industry. What had happened was this small group of grassroots people called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers had been lobbying since the early '90s to get a raise and to have some basic primitive workers' rights put in place.
What they started concentrating on was the end customers of these farmers. They started with - actually with the Taco Bell restaurant chain. And after four years, Taco Bell said, okay, we've had enough. I mean, four years of boycotts, demonstrations, they signed a board. And then gradually, all the other fast food chains in the country, one by one, often kicking and screaming, signed onto this agreement. The sad thing is that not a single supermarket chain in the country, with the exception of Whole Foods, has agreed.
RAZ: So even if somebody really wanted to eat tomatoes in the winter, could they? I mean, somebody listening to this now saying: All right. You know, I want to do this right. I don't want to, you know, I don't want to eat a bad tomato. I don't want to support this system of industrialized tomatoes. I just want have - but I do want to have a fresh tomato in December, January. What would you say?
ESTABROOK: I would very reluctantly say get a hydroponic tomato and hope that there's some taste in it.
RAZ: But really you're saying that they shouldn't eat tomatoes after September.
ESTABROOK: I think tomatoes in grocery stores are like food porn in the purest sense of the word. They look nice, they tantalize you, they make you think, but they don't deliver. You're not getting the same thing by any measure that you get in the summer either from your own garden or from a farmers market or even in a supermarket that does carry local tomatoes.
RAZ: That's Barry Estabrook. His new book is called "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." Barry, thank you so much.
ESTABROOK: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.