The Unsavory Story Of Industrially-Grown Tomatoes

In his book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook writes of perfectly round, orangish supermarket tomatoes—grown largely in Florida—and how the migrants who pick them are sometimes bound into modern slavery by farm bosses.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. What part of your salad looks the most colorful and delicious but really has the least flavor? I'm betting it's your tomato. But you already knew that because tomatoes, unless you buy them locally, are always a disappointment.

I never really understood the full extent of the reasons why until I read the book written by my next guest, who has made me question every tomato I see from now on, and he has raised some serious questions about how they are grown and picked and what amounts to what he calls slave labor, real slave labor still going on in Florida.

Barry Estabrook is the author of "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." He joins us from the studios of Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BARRY ESTABROOK: Well, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: What a story you tell here. I mean, and you begin in a wonderful way, by telling the story of a truck you were following on a highway in which you thought you thought Granny Smith apples were falling out.

ESTABROOK: Yeah, it was in southwestern Florida a few years ago, and I was minding my own business, cruising along, and I saw this open-back truck, and it looked like it was loaded, as you said, with green apples.

And then I thought to myself wait, wait, apples don't grow in Florida. And as I pulled up behind it, I saw they were tomatoes, a whole truckload mounded over with perfectly green tomatoes, not a shade of pink or red in sight. As we were going along, we came to a construction site, the truck hit a bump, and three or four of these things flew off the truck.

They narrowly missed my windshield, but they did hit the pavement. They bounced a few times, and then they rolled onto the shoulder. None of them splattered. None of them even showed cracks. I mean, a modern-day industrial tomato has no problem with falling off a truck at 60 miles an hour on an interstate highway.

FLATOW: Not to mention how - what it must taste like, besides how it's made, and it's indestructible. And then that started you along the road to investigating how tomatoes are really made and how they're grown.

ESTABROOK: Well, I wondered how you take this fruit that we get this time of year in the farmers market or from our gardens, and it's very difficult to get a tomato from my garden the 25 yards to my kitchen counter without it spontaneously splitting. And how do you get from something as wonderful as that to these potentially lethal projectiles?

FLATOW: And what you discovered is that first, which is most astounding to me when I read it, is that tomatoes are not supposed to grow in Florida. That's not their natural habitat. And second, in Florida where they're growing, they're growing in sort of pure sand. There's no soil...

ESTABROOK: Well, exactly. It's counterintuitive, I know. I mean the Sunshine State and it's warm. But it's also extremely humid. It's extremely humid year-round, and everything that loves to prey on a tomato, every fungus, every bacteria, every rust, mold, germ, every insect, loves humidity. Tomatoes hate humidity.

Their wild ancestors live on the - along the coastal regions of South America, and that's - you know, that's some of the driest desert in the world. And it's why tomatoes do well in places like California and Italy. They love these dry summer days. Florida's humid. That's step one, you're right.

And the second thing is, most Florida commercial tomatoes are grown in sand. It's not sandy loam. It's not sandy soil. It's sand, just like you get on Daytona Beach, and it's got the same level of nutrients. Everything that plant needs to survive, to grow, has to be injected into that sand, or you get nothing.

FLATOW: Wow, and so you wind up with this perfectly formed green tomato that is not being grown for its taste but its indestructibility, as you demonstrated on that highway. And then how does it get turned into something we see in our groceries?

ESTABROOK: Well, these tomatoes are picked by hand. Slicing tomatoes, fresh tomatoes that you buy whole, as opposed to canned tomatoes, are picked by hand. They have to be. They are loaded into one of these vast, huge trucks like the one that nearly did me in, and they're trucked to warehouse-like processing plants where they're washed, waxed, put in cartons, and then the cartons are placed on pallets.

And these bright green tomatoes go into warehouse-like buildings where the doors are closed and the processors turn on ethylene gas, and the tomatoes are gassed. Now, ethylene will cause a tomato to turn red. It's actually emitted naturally by the plants in the fields when they want to ripen their fruits. In this case, it's artificial, and even if a tomato is not ripe, it obligingly turns red.

FLATOW: Wow, and you outline in your book something I have never heard since I watched "The Grapes of Wrath" on television recently, that there are there are foreign workers who are brought in and they are made to be virtual slaves to pick these tomatoes.

ESTABROOK: I'm going to have to take a little bit of an issue with you. Virtual is not a qualifier I would use. Let me run down a couple of quick details: locked up, shackled in chains at night, locked in the back of produce trucks at night so that they're handy to be delivered to the fields in the morning, bought and sold and negotiated for almost at auction.

FLATOW: Tell the story of the Guatemalan worker as an example.

ESTABROOK: All right. He was a guy who came up here from Guatemala. His folks in Guatemala were both sick. The family had no money. So he took the usual route, came across the border, found his way to this town of Immokalee in southwestern Florida, it's sort of tomato capital during the wintertime.

And he was out of work and broke and sort of waiting for something to come along and was sitting on a bench with a few other guys, and this fellow pulls up in a pickup truck and he says: Anyone want work? The Guatemalan fellow said I do. And the guy said great, come on aboard. I pay twice the going rate per bucket of tomatoes. If you don't have a place to stay, we will happily put you up at our place.

My mom cooks for our crew. She charges you a bit of money, but she'll cook for you. You know, he thought: wow. He pretty soon realized that, you know, he was put in the back of a produce truck. That was his room and board, and he got charged $50 a week. The food was atrocious, often just dry tortillas. That was $50 a week.

Everything came with an exorbitant imaginary price tag. To stand under a cold hose at the end of a day's work was $5, and lo and behold, he found that no matter how hard he worked, he kept falling further and further behind, and he saw what - if people didn't work, they were beaten. Some were hospitalized.

They were told that they were now property of this crew leader and his cohorts, and for two and a half years this particular guy worked as a slave. Occasionally they'd give him a $20 bill to, you know, keep his hopes up, but there was no regular pay, and he couldn't leave. And he had no choice of when he worked.

FLATOW: What do you mean he couldn't leave?

ESTABROOK: Well, as he pointed out, one of his crew finally just couldn't take it anymore and ran away, and one of the crew boss guys chased him in the pickup truck and came back an hour or so later, and the guy was beaten to the point where he was unrecognizable and had to be dropped off at the hospital, and it was - he was permanently injured. He survived but permanently injured. And the crew boss said: You want to try to run away from me? Take a look.

FLATOW: Is this still going on?

ESTABROOK: Sadly, it's still going on. This is not an isolated case. There have been more than 1,200 people freed from slavery rings in Florida agriculture in the last 10 or 15 years. Off the record an official told me recently that there's two cases currently under investigation. The problem is they're very, very hard cases to prosecute. So what you're seeing is the tip of a really ugly iceberg.

FLATOW: And what percentage of the tomatoes in supermarkets come from Florida?

ESTABROOK: It depends on the time of year. Right now, none. But during certain periods of the winter, virtually all the tomatoes that you'll see in the supermarket or get in a fast-food restaurant or a sandwich shop will come from Florida. Overall, Florida produces about a third of the fresh tomatoes we eat in the United States.

FLATOW: You mentioned in your book how California and Florida produce equal amounts of tomatoes, but Florida uses eight times the pesticides as California.

ESTABROOK: Yes, for fresh tomatoes. It's astounding. And that's because of what we talked about earlier. The weather, the climate, is just not right in Florida to grow tomatoes. So they have to wage what amounts to chemical warfare. There's 110 different chemicals in the official Florida guidebook for commercial tomato growers that you can spray on a field over the course of the few months that those tomatoes are in the field, including many that the EPA rates as acutely toxic, which means they can kill you.

FLATOW: And the workers are exposed to this also, I imagine.

ESTABROOK: You know, Ira, I talked to three or four dozen workers personally, researching the book, and I'd asked that question, I said, have you ever been sprayed? And they'd look at me as if I said, do you put your pants on in the morning. They said, of course, all the time. I said, until like your clothes are wet? And they said, soaked. And then some - and then, you know, the vines are wet if we're not being sprayed directly. So pesticides on workers is a horrific problem. They just spray, it seems, with abandon even though it's illegal.

FLATOW: Let me go to the phones. 1-800-989-8255. Craig in Fort Myers, Florida. Hi, Craig.

CRAIG: Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

CRAIG: Thanks for taking my call. One very brief comment and then another comment. One is that the fast food industry is the designer of these tomatoes. They want tomatoes that are hard and easily - sliced thinly. And a huge percentage of these tomatoes go to the fast food industry. And then, my other comment is about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which is an organization, a not-for-profit organization made up mostly of tomato pickers here in southern Florida that works, one, to expose the slavery that goes on among agriculture workers here in southwestern Florida and then also runs boycotts against agencies to try to raise the pay for workers down here. And we've had successful boycotts against most of the fast food restaurants, and we're currently organizing a protest against public supermarkets.

FLATOW: Well, you know, reading "Tomatoland," Barry Estabrook's book, it's hard to imagine that this really goes on, but you can testify to the fact also.

CRAIG: Oh, I've been working in this field for 12 years now. And it goes on all the time, and the conditions for workers are horrific. And we can't leave out the packing companies that are complicit in all of this. And the living conditions - even when they're not shackled, which I know that they are, living conditions - it's not unusual to have 10, 15, 20 workers living in a broken down mobile home. Each of the - each of them paying $200 a month in rent.

FLATOW: And this is taken out before - this is taken out before they even get paid, so this is deducted from (unintelligible).

CRAIG: Well, perhaps. In some cases, yes and in other cases no, because there's very few landlords (unintelligible) - most of the rental living spaces in and around the tomato fields are owned by a handful of people, often by the packing companies. So even if it's, quote, unquote, you know, "not on the - in the fields," you know, they're paying $2,000 a month rent for a broken down mobile home, which you can get, hopefully, get 15 or 20 people into. And I can go on and on, of course.

FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks for calling. Interesting stuff. Barry, it jibes with what you're saying in your book.

ESTABROOK: Well, yes. I mean, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which Craig referred to, has, you know, it started out as, really, a ragtag crew of workers who just meet in a church basement, and often they just get 10 guys together to dun a reluctant crew boss and maybe slow-paying some of his workers. Now, they're a very formidable force that has won tremendous victories for the workers. They've completely turned around the way the companies relate to workers. Just in the last year, in fact, this fall, the tomato industry could look very different. There's a way to solve a lot of the problems that we talked about. The machinery is in place. How it gets used, we'll see in the coming months.

FLATOW: We're talking with Barry Estabrook, author of "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with - well, we thought we would start out talking about the magnificence of tomatoes. And you had no idea that you would find any in (unintelligible), I'm sure, Barry.

ESTABROOK: Well, I was a food writer and had been covering the flavor issue for years. But, you know, to be honest, the workers were invisible to me. I think that's tell-tale of food journalism in general at that time. It was only in the last - it was only when these slavery cases started getting made public that I realized, wait, the problem goes way beyond a not particularly good tasting winter tomato. There's a real deep problem here with the way we grow these things.

FLATOW: We - yeah. And is it changing? Do you see any change? I mean, this is the 21st century, you know?

ESTABROOK: I see a lot of - these Coalition of Immokalee Workers has implemented a fair food agreement, which gets more money to the workers and some basic education issues, some basic grievance procedures, some startling innovations that, you know, like something called the punch clock, which didn't exist before in the tomato business. Another startling thing - little tents, so you can get a bit of shade in these fields for your breaks or lunch or if you get fatigue. So, yeah, it's - this progress has been made, but it is still probably the crummiest job you can get in the United States legally.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's - in a few minutes we have left, let's talk a little bit about tomatoes themselves. I mean, you're a flavor reviewer, food reviewer. The tomato flavor is unique itself - in itself, is it not?

ESTABROOK: You know, it's - the tomato flavor is so complex, it's almost like a fine wine when you think about it. For example, if you are a plant breeder wanting to breed a banana, for whatever reason, if you got one chemical, one signature chemical into your new breed of banana, everyone would taste it and recognize it as a pretty good banana. Same with strawberries, one chemical. With tomatoes, there's a balance of citric acid, malic acid and fructose, and then there's probably 19 or 20 different chemical, aromatic chemicals - chemicals you can smell, which means chemicals you can taste - that have to go in there, and none of them bear any resemblance to a tomato. I've...

FLATOW: Wow.

ESTABROOK: ...sat in a laboratory at University of Florida. You'll smell roses, Juicy Fruit gum, cut grass. But when they're mixed together, you get that unique tomato taste. So that - that's what makes it so hard to breed for a tasty tomato.

FLATOW: Wow. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Barry Estabrook, author of "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." We're going to take a short break. We'll come back, talk a little bit more with Barry and take your questions, and 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. Tell us what you like about tomatoes or don't like. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Barry Estabrook, author of "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." On the phone with us right now is Luis CdeBaca of the State Department. He's ambassador-at-large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

LUIS CDEBACA: Good to be here.

FLATOW: What is the State Department doing to combat this trafficking in humans?

CDEBACA: Well, one of the things that's important for the Obama administration is to make sure that if we're looking at food - just as what we've seen with what Mr. Estabrook did in his book - is that food security is not simply having enough or having stuff that tastes good or gets to the market. No food can truly be secure if the people that picked it were enslaved when they were doing it.

So we're trying to get the word out. We're ranking other countries on how they're doing. And for the first time, we've actually been shining the light on the situation here in the United States. And, unfortunately, as he found in his book, there still is modern slavery right here in our own backyards.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And can the State Department do anything about it?

CDEBACA: Well, one of the things that we're doing is - Secretary Clinton is the chair of the Interagency Cabinet Task Force, and we've stepped up enforcement around the country, with new task forces at the U.S. attorneys' offices. But even more, I think, that you'll be seeing us do some work in the next year to try to help consumers be able to look at their own, for lack of a better word, slavery footprint, much like you can look at your carbon footprint. But right now you can't really necessarily tell. Are these tomatoes? Is this cocoa? Are these fish that I'm eating? You know, what is my own slavery footprint when I'm looking at this as a consumer?

FLATOW: So if I'm buying a tomato, I can know if it's made by slaves or not.

CDEBACA: Well, and I think that - you know, one of the things is that the organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and others have helped get the companies to care. But a company is not - won't necessarily care about their supply chain until they know that the consumers care about their supply chain. So it's not just insisting that it can pack and it can go a long way, but it was also picked and packed in a humane and respectful manner.

FLATOW: Thank you very much, Mr. CdeBaca, for joining us today.

CDEBACA: Good to be here. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Luis CdeBaca of the U.S. Department of State, office - he's an ambassador-at-large at the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Person. With me also, as I say, is Barry Estabrook, author of "Tomatoland." Barry, any - have you talked to them before? Any reaction?

ESTABROOK: I haven't talked to the State Department, but I have talked to many law enforcement officers in southwestern Florida who've been - the frontlines in these slavery prosecutions. And I have to say, refreshingly forthcoming. I - as a reporter, you know, often lawyers and policemen are, you know, closemouthed. These guys, I have the feeling that they take their job personally. It's a horrific crime.

You know, all these people do is want to come and work. They're willing to do - you know, they're desperate and they want to work. They don't want to panhandle. They want to work, and they end up as slaves.

And so, tremendous cooperation from Douglas Molloy, who's the U.S. attorney for the - that district of Florida. Tremendous cooperation from the Collier County, Florida, police department - Charlie Frost down there. Unprecedented because this is a type of crime, they all tell me, that withers in the light of publicity. It can't stand it. No one wants to have conditions that existed in 1850 happening right now, you know, in Florida or anywhere in the United States. So...

FLATOW: Well, Barry - well, maybe your book "Tomatoland" becomes the new "Grapes of Wrath." So...

ESTABROOK: Well...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: So we wish - you know, you and Steinbeck. We wish you good luck. Thank you for taking time to be with us today. "Tomatoland:" - it will change the way you look at tomatoes, written by Barry Estabrook, "How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit."

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.