by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Tomatoes

Jan 21 2014

A triumph for organized labor: Walmart agrees to pay 1 cent/pound more to tomato pickers

The  big news last week—and it is very big news—is that Walmart has signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Program.

Under this program, Walmart agrees to pay Florida tomato pickers one penny more for each pound harvested — and says it will apply that premium to other fresh produce sold by the chain.

A penny a pound may not sound like much, especially since Walmart took in $466 billion  in revenue last year.

But it means that workers who are now paid 50 cents for a 32-pound basket will get 82 cents, and their wages can go from $50 to $90 dollars a day.

As Tom Philpott explains in Mother Jones

Late Thursday, CIW netted the biggest fish of all: Walmart, by far the largest private food buyer in the US. A company that muscled its way to the top of the US corporate heap by pinching pennies—squeezing suppliers and its own workers relentlessly—has now agreed to shell out an extra penny per pound for tomatoes.

CIW has shown yet again that scrappy workers, sufficiently organized, can win concessions from even the most ruthless companies.

Barry Estabrook, whose book Tomatoland has done so much to bring attention to the CIW’s accomplishments, writes in Civil Eats

The struggle for labor justice in the fields of the United States—and perhaps far beyond—took an historic stride forward yesterday. At a folding table in a metal-clad produce packing shed beside a tomato field in southwestern Florida, two high-ranking executives from the giant retailer Walmart, which sells more groceries than any other company in the world, sat down beside two Mexican farmworkers and signed an agreement to join the Fair Food Program…The implications of the Walmart decision cannot be understated. Enormous pressure will be placed on competing grocery giants to follow Walmart’s lead.

Good work, CIW.

Nov 15 2011

Ketchup is a vegetable? Again?

Food Chemical News (FCN) reports today that the USDA has sent its final rules on nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts to the Office of Management and Budget for approval.  The final content of what got submitted is not known.

These rules, you may recall from previous posts, are based on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine in a 2009 report on School Meals.

Several of the USDA’s proposals for implementing these suggestions have elicited more than the usual level of fuss.  The most controversial:

  • Limits on starchy vegetables to two servings a week.  As I noted a few days ago, the Senate passed an amendment to the USDA’s appropriations bill to block any restrictions on potatoes.  Most observers think this means that unlimited potatoes will stay in the school meals.
  • Preventing tomato paste on pizza from counting as a vegetable.  According to FCN, language in the appropriations bill “also stipulates that tomato paste used to make pizzas can be counted toward the weekly total of vegetable servings.”

Does the Senate think this can pass the laugh test?

Historical note:  Remember when the Reagan administration proposed to allow ketchup to count as a vegetable in school meals:

An additional proposed change in crediting policy would allow vegetable and fruit concentrates to be credited on a single-strength reconstituted basis rather than on the basis of the actual volume as served.

For example, one tablespoon of tomato paste could be credited as 1/4 cup single-strength tomato juice.  Previously, it was only credited as 1 tablespoon, the volume as served (Federal Register 9-4-81).

Meaning ketchup!

The press had a field day.  The  ensuing bipartisan hilarity and what Nutrition Action (November 1981) called a “maelstorm of criticism from Congress, the press, and the public alike” induced the USDA to rescind the rules one month later.

  • The Washington Post (9-26-81) quoted the budget director’s comment that USDA “not only has egg on its face, but ketchup too.”
  • Republican Senator John Heinz (whose company owns Heinz ketchup) said “Ketchup is a condiment.  This is one of the most ridiculous regulations I ever heard of, and I suppose I need not add that I know something about ketchup and relish–or did at one time.”
  • The New York Times (9-28-81) noted that “Democrats are still chortling at what they hail as ‘the Emperor’s New Condiments’—the attempt to declare ketchup a school-lunch vegetable.”

Times have changed.  Senators used to have the health of American school children in mind.  Now, they undermine efforts by USDA to improve meals for kids.

The Senate’s action has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with political posturing and caving in to lobbyists.

The Senate should reconsider its actions.  The USDA should not back down on this one.

Additions, November 17: background documents and additional links

Sep 24 2008

Food price fixing? It’s not legal

As readers know, I love to collect reasons for the sharp increase in food prices that has occurred this year.  Here’s a new one: price fixing.  Although you might not know it from looking at the similar prices of food products in the same category, price fixing is illegal.  Federal prosecutors are apparently looking into price collusion in the tomato industry (according to the Associated Press) and egg industry (Wall Street Journal).  Who knew?

Aug 1 2008

Salmonella saintpaul goes to Congress

So it wasn’t tomatoes; it was a jalapeno pepper (maybe). Congress wants to know what took the FDA so long and why the Florida tomato industry got creamed in the process. But every proverbial cloud has a silver lining: the food industry wants more regulation. It’s about time.  They finally figured out that a stronger FDA would be good for business. Look what it took to teach them this lesson!  Not a pretty sight.

Jul 4 2008

The Perishable Pundit takes me on

Yesterday, July 3, Jim Prevor, the Perishable Pundit, published a long series of posts (his ninth collection) on the tomato recalls.  One of the last in this bunch is in response to some comments I sent him.   We disagree about a number of points.  But if it were easy to achieve safe food, we’d have it by now.  I think it’s great that people like Jim are thinking seriously about these issues.  See what you think of this debate.

Jun 30 2008

The tomato (maybe?) saga continues

The epidemic of illness caused by the unusual saintpaul type of Salmonella has now affected more than 800 people, and federal agencies seem more than perplexed about its source. The FDA says tomatoes, and called for their removal from the market, an action with devastating consequences for the tomato industry. But cases are still turning up. Perhaps that is why the CDC thinks maybe something else might be the cause. Salsa? Guacamole? The produce industry is understandably interested and two websites are excellent sources of day-to-day information: the straight-news Packer, and the tell-it-like-it-is Perishable Pundit. Go to the FDA website for updates on the ongoing investigation and also provides lists of tomatoes safe to eat. Part of the difficulty in following this story is that two federal agencies are involved: the FDA and the CDC. The CDC has its own version of events (with useful maps of where the cases are in the U.S.). The USDA , which only deals with animal foods, doesn’t seem to be part of this one. It should be. The ultimate source of this outbreak has to be animal waste. This tomato (?) outbreak is precisely why we need a single food agency to oversee food safety. When, oh when?

Update, July 1: The Wall Street Journal reviews the outbreak and explains why the produce and restaurant industries are so angry.

Update, July 2: The Wall Street Journal quotes the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mike Leavitt , saying that because multiple countries and multiple agencies are involved in the investigation, “it shows the need for better cooperation.” No. It shows the need for a single food agency!

Update, July 3: I’ve just discovered USA Today’s nifty time line of the tomato saga.

Jun 12 2008

This week’s question: why fund the FDA now?

Eating Liberally’s kat wants to know why all of a sudden the FDA is getting some funding.  Tomatoes?  Not likely, as I explain.

Jun 12 2008

Tomato misery

So the tomato saga continues, with the source of the Salmonella Saintpaul still not announced.  This means that you need to know which state a tomato comes from so you can avoid eating potentially tainted tomatoes from states that are still under suspicion. State-of-origin labeling, anyone? And you must take draconian measures to protect yourself from killer tomatoes: buy only the good ones (not plum, Roma, or round unless they are from OK states), wash and dry them carefully, and take your chances. Not sure what to do? Drop them in boiling water or cook them into tomato sauce. Isn’t this exciting? Not for anyone who cares about food safety or, alas, for tomato farmers likely to take the same kind of hit the spinach growers did. Check out what the Perishable Pundit has to say about all this. The Packer.com is another good place to follow this story from the industry’s perspective.

And I’ll say it again: it’s time to do something about our food safety system or the lack thereof. In the meantime, according to the New York Times, Congress again and again asked Commissioner von Eschenbach how much money the FDA needs to do the job right, but “again and again Dr. von Eschenbach refused to give an answer.” Of course he refused.  He has to.  He’s a political appointee.