Monday, February 1, 2010

Some Exploitation with Your Tomato?

Need another excuse not to eat tomatoes out of season (beside the fact that they're 'anemic', tough and taste horrible)? Consider this: Workers in Florida are paid $0.45 for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they collect: the same wage they earned 30 years ago in 1979. I don't know about you, but I suspect very few of us could survive on 1979 wages these days. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a South Florida farm workers organization, likens this wage as well as common working conditions in Florida to slavery. U.S. lawmakers seem to agree. In the past decade, seven Florida tomato farms have been prosecuted for servitude (slavery) in U.S. courts.

The conditions for Florida tomato field worker are so poor that even some food service giants are starting to take notice. In April, Bon Appetit Management threatened to boycott Florida tomato growers, even if it meant that salads and sandwiches across their 400+ college and corporate caf├ęs across the US went without the North American staple, unless workers were paid received a "penny per pound" more for their harvesting. Whole foods similarly refuses to buy Florida tomatoes unless the same condition is met. That seems like a small price to pay, but the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an industry trade group, has flatly refused and even threatened to fine any grower agreeing to the wage increase.

Sometimes heros do emerge though. In September, East Coast Growers and Packers, one of Florida's largest tomato growers, broke from industry position and agreed to the wage increase. It's a beginning, but finding those 'slavery-free' tomatoes is tough for the average consumer. It is nearly impossible to trace a tomato back to a specific farm. In most grocery stores in Quebec we're lucky if we can find out more than the tomato is "Product of the US". (I'm told most of our off-season tomatoes do come from Florida.)

So why not give the winter tomatoes a pass this season. Try some grated root vegetables instead. Or of you must have something soft, sweet and dripping in your sandwich, consider sliced plum or a dollop of old-fashioned chutney or relish.

1. Helene York. The Cost of Year-Round Tomatoes. The Atlantic.
2. Jane Black. A Squeeze for Tomato Growers. The Washington Post. April 29, 2009.
3. Barry Estabrook. The Price of Tomatoes. Gourmet. March 2009.

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