Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Weird UglyRipe Tomato Controvery

Don't know how many people have noticed the story of the UglyRipe tomato, but it's something I've came across a while ago and find strangely compelling. I won't repeat the story (see links below for an overview), but here are a few of the elements I find particularly interesting:

  • Where knew there was such a thing as the Florida Tomato Committee?
  • It's curious that the dictates of the Florida Tomato Committee are not in force from June 15th through October 10th (when locally-grown ripe tomatoes are available throughout the country). Why is that? I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that grocery stores don't buy Florida tomatoes during the summer because they can get local ones, but I still don't get the logic.
  • The whole thing is typically positioned as a David-vs-Goliath story, but Procacci Brothers is one of the largest vegetable distributors in the country. So it's really more of a Goliath-vs-Goliath story. This doesn't necessarily affect who is right or wrong, but it's interesting to note.

I also find it curious that the debate is usually framed as a choice between whether consumers should be guaranteed tomatoes that look good (round, red, etc.) vs. whether they should be able to have good tasting tomatoes year round. An editorial from the crunchy Mother Earth News is particularly amusing, in that it assumes that tomato growers are so stupid as to not understand how the American vegetable market works and that the average consumer is powerless in the face of Big Food (yes, outraged columnist really do use that term):

Apparently, we need to let the [Florida Tomato] committee members (and the USDA and Congress) know that the tomatoes they send to our supermarkets are so bland and tasteless that many of us are no longer even tempted to buy them. If they want to “improve grower returns,” then they need to start selling better-tasting tomatoes.

At the end Mother Jones urges people to grow their own tomatoes or buy them locally, but they seem to tacitly accept the notion that we have the right to have good, fresh vegetables anytime we want them (seasons be damned) and that they should be easily available in supermarkets so we don't have to spend any energy growing them or at least actively looking for them.

I hold to the general principle that good taste should be the ultimate criteria for judging food, but it's the year-round thing that gets me. As annoying as it is that there is some quasi-governmental committee controlling what produce can and can't be shipped out of Florida, I just can't get too worked up over the fact that I can't get a good tomato in January. Of course you can't get a good tomato in January! They grow in the summer! Why not do what people have been doing since well before the rise of the railroads and the intercontinental produce trade: save your fresh tomato recipes until summer and use good canned tomatoes for sauces, etc. during the off season?

And, I can't get worked up over the fact that supermarket tomatoes are consistently awful. It's not like it's hard to find fresh locally grown tomatoes when they are in season--there are at least a dozen roadside stands and guys-on-the-side-of-the-road-in-pickups within a ten minutes drive of my house where I can find baskets of vine-ripened local tomatoes. I can only assume that the reason most supermarket tomatoes are so bad is that (contrary to the contention of Mother Jones) most shoppers really don't care, or at least don't care enough to make the effort to find better ones or, failing that, decide to eat something else.

There was a flurry of publicity about the UglyRipe tomato six months ago, which I can only assume meant the Procacci Brothers tried to open a serious PR front to the war. Things seem to have died down since, and it looks like the Procacci's have lost the battle (for now, at least).

Here are a few background links:

The latest press release from Procacci Brothers

A few outraged columninsts (about six months old, but they give a good sense of how the story was framed):

USA Today

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