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."