Mark Bittman's surprisingly positive view on industrial tomatoes arouses debate


In his NY Times column, The Opinionator, Mark Bittman recently wrote of a visit he took to California to scope out why industrial canned tomatoes can taste better than even the "heirloom" tomatoes he buys at the grocery store. His article, Not All Industrial Food is Evil, starts out with no pretense that he isn't skeptical:

"So, fearing the worst - because we all "know" that organic farming is "good" and industrial farming is "bad" - I headed to the Sacramento Valley in California to see a big tomato operation."

In the course of his reporting, he discovers, first of all, that the tomatoes aren't half bad, "they had a firm, pleasant texture and mild but real flavor, and were better than any tomatoes - even so-called heirlooms - sold in my supermarket."

And second, that the workers are not truly being abused: "It's far from paradise, but it isn't hell either. The basic question is this: Are the processes and products healthy, fair, green and affordable?  Workers in the fields have shade, water and breaks; they're not being paid by the piece. Workers in the plants are not getting rich but they're doing better than they would working in the fields, or in a fast-food joint.

Rominger is managing his fields conscientiously and, by today's standards, progressively. He's also juggling an almost unimaginable array of standards set by the state, by P.C.P. and other processors, and even by his customers, who may say things like, "What are you doing about nitrate runoff?"

This report has, as would be expected, aroused considerable debate - from both sides. Over at Forbes, they take a business-like approach,writing, "While it is nice that the tomato farmers are rotating crops and the union laborers are paid decently, it is inexcusable that Bittman buried at the bottom of his article the fact that farmers are not often paid a fair price for what they produce.  It is a problem endemic in agriculture and, unbeknownst to readers like EricB, hits small farms the hardest."

Then there are the extremists, "What kind of utopian nonsense is this? Is this distant futuristic utopian vision supposed to replace any practice of principle in the real world? Wouldn't the realist prefer to buy his tomatoes locally from a farmer he trusts (and pays enough) to put principles into practice here and now?  Surely only immigrants work all the jobs described. Who here would want any of the jobs described in the article for himself or any of his loved ones?

Either way, we're pleased that Bittman wrote the article - open mindedness  too often seems to be lacking on both sides of the agricultural debate and, when it occurs, it should be applauded.

On another topic, we thought we'd provide an update on a previous blog we wrote on using social media to finance cook-related projects. Niamh, who writes the popular U.K. blog,  Eat Like a Girl, has been using Kickstarter to finance a bacon cookbook We've been watching it with interest - she has two days left andremains shy of her goal. We wish her the best of luck.


  • sir_ken_g  on  8/19/2013 at 12:43 PM

    There was an article in Saveur magazine years ago about "old stoves" - Italian-American grandmothers. They were asked what tomatoes they used when tomatoes were off season. The answer was "canned".

  • Queezle_Sister  on  8/20/2013 at 8:03 AM

    As an avid tomato lover, I love my home-grown heirlooms. However, come mid-winter, tinned tomatoes beat out the ones at the grocery store hands down. I, too, find the open mindedness of this article refreshing.

  • FuzzyChef  on  8/21/2013 at 1:05 AM

    Hey, I wouldn't survive without Muir Glen.

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