Monday, February 23, 2009

Tomatoes and Slavery

Photo by Flickr user fensterbme.

Yet another reason to avoid those mushy, out-of-season, pale orbs grocery stores pass off as tomatoes: According to a story by Barry Eastabrook in this month's Gourmet (long may it live!), slavery is alive and well in Florida's tomato industry. Crew bosses routinely offer immigrants jobs picking tomatoes, then hold them against their will, often under horrific conditions. Eastabrook describes one case in which a tomato worker was locked in the bed of a box truck in a junk-strewn yard, beaten when he was unable to work, and charged exorbitant prices for "rent" ($20 a week to share the truck bed with two or three other workers) and cold showers from a garden hose ($5 a pop).

The worker's situation, Eastabrook reports, was hardly an isolated incident:

Since 1997, law-enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women in seven different cases. And those are only the instances that resulted in convictions. Frightened, undocumented, mistrustful of the police, and speaking little or no English, most slaves refuse to testify, which means their captors cannot be tried. “Unlike victims of other crimes, slaves don’t report themselves,” said Molloy, who was one of the prosecutors on the Navarrete case. “They hide from us in plain sight.”

And for what? Supermarket produce sections overflow with bins of perfect red-orange tomatoes even during the coldest months—never mind that they are all but tasteless. Large packers, which ship nearly $500 million worth of tomatoes annually to major restaurants and grocery retailers nationwide, own or lease the land upon which the workers toil. But the harvesting is often done by independent contractors called crew bosses, who bear responsibility for hiring and overseeing pickers. Said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, "We abhor slavery and do everything we can to prevent it. We want to make sure that we always foster a work environment free from hazard, intimidation, harassment, and violence." Growers, he said, cooperated with law-enforcement officers in the Navarette case.

But when asked if it is reasonable to assume that an American who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store or food-service company during the winter has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave, Molloy said, “It is not an assumption. It is a fact.”

Although Eastabrook's conclusion--buy local in the summer, and avoid tomatoes from Mexico and Florida in the winter--doesn't go far enough for me, his story does provide yet another reason to think twice before throwing a rock-hard Florida tomato in the cart. However, I wish he'd taken it one step further and suggested that Gourmet readers (come on, we can take it!) avoid out-of-season produce altogether. We don't expect to go skiing in the summer or go to the beach in January--why should we demand summer produce in the dead of winter?

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