Have Slaves Touched Your Tomatoes? 'Tomatoland' Says Yes

Posted by Peter Smith

Take heed, caprese salad eaters: Florida's fresh tomato industry is ripe for a take-down. And Barry Estabrook's latest book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, offers a stinging indictment of the circumstances surrounding the plant's production.

Estabrook examines the evolutionary peculiarities that led to today's most common tomato species. He charts the rise of the perfectly round, artificially ripened, and nearly tasteless all-season tomato. He even unravels the historical decision that made tomatoes a "vegetable" and not a fruit. But the book is more than a compilation of intriguing historical facts; it's also a grim portrait of farmworkers today:

In the chilling words of Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, South Florida's tomato fields are "ground zero for modern-day slavery." Molloy is not talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slaverylike conditions, but real slavery ... When I asked Molloy if it was safe to assume that a consumer who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or food-service company in the winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave, he corrected my choice of words. "It's not an assumption. It is a fact."

If nothing else, Estabrook's book will make it clear to anyone that the cost of food ripples far beyond the checkout line.