By Jaelithe Judy
If you live in the United States and you eat fresh tomatoes in the wintertime, you’ve almost certainly tasted a tomato that was picked by a slave.
“That’s not an assumption. That’s a fact,” reveals U.S. District Attorney Douglas Molloy to former Gourmet magazine contributing editor Barry Estabrook in Estabrook’s book, Tomatoland. Molloy is a veteran government prosecutor with more than a decade of experience dealing with crime in Immokalee, Florida, a town at the center of Florida’s tomato industry. And he calls Immokalee “ground zero for modern day slavery.”
Roughly 90 percent of the slicing tomatoes sold in the winter in the United States come from industrial farms in the Sunshine State. To ensure they survive the long journey from balmy Florida to places as far away as Detroit or Seattle with nary a dent, the perfectly round, perfectly red winter tomatoes that line supermarket shelves and feed fast food restaurant customers in northern states in December are actually picked while green and hard. Later, these unripe tomatoes are gassed en masse in warehouses with ethylene — the same gas tomato plants produce naturally when their fruits are ripening — to turn them prematurely red. (If you’ve ever wondered why supermarket tomatoes in winter taste vaguely like tomato-colored wood pulp, this common industry practice would be a big reason why.)