Tag Archives: Good Eats

Tomatoes: Corporate Farming Victim?

If ever you want to see what happens to food when corporate entities take over its mass production for mass consumption, one need not look further than the red fruit that most people mistake for a vegetable.

Those in the food industry generally know that tomatoes are a questionable lot. What we’re purchasing now in the produce section of our (American) grocery stores is a far, far cry from the tomatoes of our youth. I can recall tomatoes sitting on our window-sills, green in color. We waited patiently over the course of one to three days until my mother deemed them ripe. And then we’d make sauce, or have tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches, or simply sliced them up and eat them with a spoonful of sugar on top.

I remember my neighbor, Mr. Ghiaccartti, paying me in tomatoes from his garden for the simple task of walking his dog.

These tomatoes had taste. It didn’t matter if they were perfectly round, or carried an almost cartoonish red color. They were fresh, they were sometimes ugly, they were sometimes yellow or orange, and they were far better than the stuff that we’re forced to swallow today.

So what went wrong?

It seems that I wasn’t the only one who liked tomatoes. There was a huge demand for the fruit, not only in season, but in off season as well. So the corporate farms and scientists looked for ways to make the tomato available year round. Ethylene ripening certainly played a part. Commercial food growers, immediately after picking, stack the tomatoes on pallets in a large room, and for the next three days, ethylene is piped in. The ethylene triggers the creation of enzymes, which break down cell walls and turn starches into sugar. The tomatoes begin softening and turning red. The problem with all for this is that unripe tomatoes are often structurally unstable internally. When one cuts into a tomato and all the viscous juice falls out, this viscous juice was taste potential – parts of the tomato that, if left on the vine, would have become solid and added more sugar to the fruit.

Other problems?

- Growers pick tomatoes, not based on taste, but on structural stability during packing and shipping. And often those tomatoes which ship easier, don’t have the same taste as those which bruise easily.

- They are packed chilled, often below 55 degrees F. A tomato produces a flavor enzyme as it ripens. As soon as the temperature goes below 55 degrees, the enzyme stops producing flavor — permanently. And yet tomatoes are often shipped at 37 degrees.

So what the major problem with tomatoes is that they are picked, packaged and shipped before the tomato has been given the opportunity to reach it’s full taste potential.

Think this isn’t a problem? Consider the fact that in an episode of “Good Eats”, Alton Brown recommended using canned tomatoes when making tomato sauce. Why? Because the tomatoes picked for canning *have* been allowed to reach their full taste potential.

How silly has this looks vs taste argument gotten? Procacci, Gargiulo, Santa Sweets have combined to develop what they call an “UglyRipe”â„¢ tomato. This tomato is open-pollinated and has been preserved and kept true to its purest form. They’re not hybrid tomatoes which are grown for commercial purposes ( which tend to lose both flavor and color after several generations of breeding).

From all reports, the tomatoes taste marvelous. And over the past few years, it has been exempt from various Florida Marketing rules as they were an experimental crop (They are grown in Florida). But then the committee cracked down. Two winters ago, the Florida Tomato Committee ordered UglyRipe to comply with their rules, forcing the Uglyripe producers to discard 40,000 pounds a day. The reason the Florida Tomato Committee demanded that they stop producing these tomatoes?

The Uglyripe tomatoes are too ugly.

The Florida Tomato Committee panel made up of major growers in the state’s $500 million tomato industry, ruled that the UglyRipe could not be sold outside Florida because it did not meet the standards of perfection the marketing rule required.

And this is where we are today. We have arrived to a point where a tomato has been created with taste in mind, can be quelled by an over zealous marketing board. All evidence indicates that the marketplace would have supported this tomato, but because it didn’t look perfect, its future is in doubt. Do we really want to have a marketplace where regulatory agencies discourage innovation in taste?

Many thanks to Metafilter for the inspiration for this post.