Hold the Tomatoes

Eric Schlosser (he of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness fame) has a great op-ed in the NYT today about the horrid conditions facing the migrant workers who provide you with those oh-so-awesome (meaning, really bland and flavorless) beafsteak tomatoes during the winter.

Migrant farm laborers have long been among America’s most impoverished workers. Perhaps 80 percent of the migrants in Florida are illegal immigrants and thus especially vulnerable to abuse. During the past decade, the United States Justice Department has prosecuted half a dozen cases of slavery among farm workers in Florida. Migrants have been driven into debt, forced to work for nothing and kept in chained trailers at night. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers — a farm worker alliance based in Immokalee, Fla. — has done a heroic job improving the lives of migrants in the state, investigating slavery cases and negotiating the penny-per-pound surcharge with fast food chains.

Florida’s tomato industry may be one of the most effective cartels in the U.S. today, for example, they’ve successfully used their clout to prevent marketing of more flavorful — if less comely — varietals. So it’s a shame, if predictable, that they allow themselves to be browbeaten by the scions of robber-baron capitalism. Consider:

Telling Burger King to pay an extra penny for tomatoes and provide a decent wage to migrant workers would hardly bankrupt the company. Indeed, it would cost Burger King only $250,000 a year. At Goldman Sachs, that sort of money shouldn’t be too hard to find. In 2006, the bonuses of the top 12 Goldman Sachs executives exceeded $200 million — more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year.

Knowing what misers the Florida growers and their buyers are, do you really need your mid-winter tomato?