Commentary

Attack of the Killer Tomato Snobs

At the beginning of this winter, the United States faced a shortage of tomatoes. Many restaurants would put tomatoes on sandwiches or burgers only if you specifically asked for them.

The hurricanes in Florida last year were a big reason why. The short supply of tomatoes meant prices were higher, too, which in turn meant less demand.

Or so Florida tomato growers claimed. But another reason tomatoes are less sought after 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 doused with chemicals throughout the shipping process as they make their way to the grocer. This leaves them red, but a bit short on taste.

Enter the UglyRipe, a lumpen, misshapen, odd duck of a tomato grown near Naples, Florida, 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 holds the opposite view. Set up under a 1937 law that allows farmers to form marketing groups that exert tight control over what can be sold, agricultural marketing committees like the Florida Tomato Committee have the power not only to dictate what comes 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 in early January 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,” he explained.

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?”

The answer, of course, is that the free market would decide what is and isn’t a worthy tomato, instead of a select group of tomato snobs who represent those guilty of what passes for a Beefsteak these days.

These marketing committees are anachronistic — assuming they were ever a very good idea 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 industry 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 is 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 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 – 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 in 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.

The ruling is ripe to be struck down by Congress, an action that should be upheld by the Supreme Court.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute.