You may not think that tomatoes are terribly newsworthy. But there they were, featured on Fresh Air yesterday, the center of a must-hear interview with the investigative food reporter Barry Estabrook. In his new book, Tomatoland, he writes about the 15 or so mysterious ingredients needed to breed a tomato that tastes (almost) like it was plucked from a backyard garden in August, but he also details changes in the agriculture industry that have basically killed “our most alluring fruit.”
For instance, he tells Terry Gross: “My mother, in the ’60s could buy a tomato in the supermarket that had 30 to 40 percent more vitamin C and way more niacin and calcium. The only area that the modern industrial tomato beats its Kennedy-administration counterpart is in sodium.”
Beyond nutritional content, Estabrook provides hair-raising details about the working conditions on tomato farms:
“Of the legal jobs available, picking tomatoes is at the very bottom of the economic ladder. I came into this book chronicling a case of slavery in southwestern Florida that came to light in 2007 and 2008. And it was shocking. I’m not talking about near-slavery or slavery-like conditions. I’m talking about abject slavery. These were people who were bought and sold. These were people who were shackled in chains at night or locked in the back of produce trucks with no sanitary facilities all night.
“These were people who were forced to work whether they wanted to or not and if they didn’t, they were beaten severely. If they tried to escape, they were either beaten worse or in some cases, they were killed. And they received little or no pay. It sounds like 1850. … There have been seven [legal cases] in the last 10 or 15 years … successfully brought to justice in Florida involving slavery. And 1,200 people have been freed. The U.S. Attorney for the district in Southern Florida claims that that just represents a tiny, tiny tip of an iceberg because it’s extraordinarily difficult to prosecute a modern-day slavery case.”
Incremental progress is being made to improve conditions for the workers, Estabrook says. But there are other troubled food arenas — trouble with the food itself — that are truly stomach-turning. Take shrimp, for instance, which are really cheap these days. There’s a reason for that, Estabrook says, and based on his research, I don’t think I’ll ever eat an imported shrimp again, ever.
Consider this, from the interview:
Ninety percent of shrimp we eat come from countries in Asia, Thailand…Vietnam, Bangladesh and these shrimp are often grown in areas that used to be mangrove swamps…They clear the swamps and build these ponds and stock enormous quantities of shrimp into these ponds, and in such concentrations…shrimp defecate like anything else, and they basically become sewage lagoons…Oftentimes they have to keep these shrimp on pretty much steady diets of drugs and antibiotics in order for them to survive and some of those are antibiotics that are illegal to use period in food animals in the United States. Every so often the FDA finds a shipment of shrimp coming into the country that contain traces of these very potent antibiotics that are not supposed to be in food animals.