Tomato Tyrants Ban Better Fruit

The United States is facing a shortage of tomatoes this winter. Many restaurants will put tomatoes on sandwiches or burgers only if you specifically ask for them.

The hurricanes in Florida last year are a big reason why. The short supply of tomatoes means prices are higher, too. Which means there’s less demand.

Or so Florida tomato growers say. But another reason tomatoes are in less and less demand lately could be that they taste like construction paper. They may be round, red and firm to the touch, but winter tomatoes are picked while they’re still green, then gassed throughout the shipping process as they make their way to the grocer. That makes them red, but a bit short on taste.

Enter the Uglyripe (search), a lumpen, misshapen, odd duck of a tomato grown near Naples, Fla., by the Procacci brothers. The typical Uglyripe resembles what tomato people call a “cat’s face.” It has crevices, ridges and scars. It’s rarely round, and is difficult to slice for sandwiches. It’s also delicious.

Uglyripes are picked pink and shipped in specialized packing to ensure freshness. That makes them more expensive, yet consumers had been plucking them off the shelves by the armful because of their sweet taste and juicy, chin-dripping goodness. Customers, it seems, value taste in tomatoes far more than they value shape, color and uniformity.

Unfortunately, the Florida Tomato Committee (search) holds the opposite view. Set up under a 1937 law that allows farmers to form marketing groups that exert tight control over what can and can’t be sold, agricultural marketing committees (search) like the Florida Tomato Committee have the power not only to dictate what does and doesn’t come to market, they can also force farmers to contribute resources to marketing campaigns.

The Supreme Court will rule this spring whether such tactics are legal in a case brought by dairy farmers who were forced to help pay for the Got Milk? campaign.

But back to tomatoes. The Florida Tomato Committee ruled last week that Procacci’s Uglyripes are simply too ugly to be sold as a Florida tomato. The decision will cost Procacci about $3 million, and will rob tomato lovers across the country of a great-tasting fruit (yes, the tomato is a fruit).

Never mind customer tastes, or taste in general. The FTC’s only concern is that a tomato be red, round, and indistinguishable from the tomatoes around it. “[The ruling] has nothing to do with taste,” committee compliance officer Skip Jonas told the New York Times, “taste is subjective.” Obviously.

Reggie Brown, the committee’s manager, told USA Today, “If you allowed the producers of UglyRipe to ship any quality of tomato, then how could you justify not allowing any quality tomato into the market place?"

Well, Mr. Brown, you’d allow the free market to decide what is and isn’t a worthy tomato, not a select group of tomato snobs who represent the people guilty of what passes for a Beefsteak (search) these days.

These marketing committees are anachronistic -- assuming they were ever very good ideas in the first place. In fact, the Uglyripe case has revealed what these committees really are – government-sanctioned protectionist rackets designed to stifle innovation, protect the industry’s dinosaurs, and keep a better product from ever becoming competitive.

“These requirements serve to ensure customer satisfaction and improve grower returns,” the committee wrote. “Not holding the UglyRipe tomato to these same standards defies orderly marketing and provides it unfair, undue marketing advantage."

Given that the Uglyripe is a more expensive, visually unappealing tomato, it’s difficult to see how merely allowing it into the grocery store presents an “undue marketing advantage.” Unless, of course, current Florida tomatoes are so awful that customers would actually prefer an uglier, more expensive, but much tastier option. That seems to be what’s happening.

Should the Procaccis' case get as far, this is one example of where the Supreme Court could justifiably invoke the Interstate Commerce Clause (search) – something it has been far too ready to invoke over the years when it isn’t justified, but far too reticent to invoke when it is.

The framers included the ICC to prevent one state from enacting laws that restrict commerce and competition from other states. It was intended to allow Congress to set up what you might call a “free trade zone” between the states. The Florida Tomato Committee’s anti-Uglyripe ruling amounts to classic protectionism, protecting Florida’s old-guard tomato growers from competition, at the expense of consumers. It’s ripe to be struck down by Congress, and upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Pracacci brothers figured out how to grow a better tomato. Now if only the government would let the rest of us eat it.

CORRECTION: In my last column, I incorrectly stated that Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported there were 19 armed conflicts in 2003, down from 44 in 1995. Actually, SIPRI reported 28 conflicts in 1995. The 44 number comes from Project Ploughshares, a Canadian organization that defines "armed conflict" more broadly.

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