The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Tomatoes
WOMAN IN SUPERMARKET: These are better than most that I`ve seen. Tomatoes in general have been so disappointing that I`ve gotten to the point where I just walk by them; I don`t buy them any more because either they`re very hard and when you eat them they have no taste at all. They`re very waxy. Very often I`ve found them rotten inside and you can`t seem to tell it from the outside. They are terribly expensive, and we love them because we`re big salad eaters, you know. But they`re not the kind of tomatoes we used to get years ago.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. Most of this week we`re all going to be preoccupied with the energy crisis, but tonight we`d like to remind you that this country faces other crises than energy. And one of them is the tomato. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: It`s a crisis of confidence, Robin. Recent opinion polls ranked the tomato among the least loved of all vegetables. Turned-off tomato eaters complain that the modern, mass produced tomato is thick-skinned, dry, tasteless and nutritionally worthless. The tomato producers say this is a bad rap on them and their product, that the new techniques for producing tomatoes have resulted in improvements in both the quality and the quantity of the tomato. It`s a controversy that affects everyone in this country who eats tomatoes. Robin?
Ma.cNEIL: What does all this say about trends in modern American life? The trouble is that not everyone agrees what a good tomato is, and the difference is most sharp between the people who produce and sell them and those of us who eat them. People who market tomatoes, for example, tend to prefer those that are firm, not too juicy and with a long shelf life.
FRUIT AND VEGETABLE MARKET OWNER: This time of year we get them from Mexico. Usually we get them from Florida, but Florida`s, they freeze -- the crop down there -- and they don`t have any in Florida. So all these tomatoes we get from Mexico, and these come from Ohio -- Cleveland, Ohio; hothouse. No other tomatoes this time of year. The Mexican tomato has no body; when you cut it, it`s like water inside -- watery. Florida has a better taste. This has a good taste, too. When you cut it it`s solid inside -- a good tomato.
WOMAN AT VEGETABLE MARKET: I never buy tomatoes in the winter time -- actually, rarely buy them in the winter time. Sometimes if I need to cook them in a certain recipe that`s going to cook for a long time I will; but basically I find they have absolutely no flavor unless they`ve been grown in someone`s garden or bought from a roadside stand in the summertime. New Jersey tomatoes are the greatest.
SECOND WOMAN AT VEGETABLE MARKET: It makes your taste buds water if it has a really good flavor -- it`s rich; I can`t really describe it. I just haven`t had it in a long time in tomatoes that I`ve eaten in New York. And I am a tomato fan.
MacNEIL: Americans may complain a lot about tomatoes, but that doesn`t mean they`ve stopped eating them. Even though tomato prices have doubled since 1964 the average consumer still eats just as many as he did then -- about twelve pounds of fresh tomatoes a year; or fifty-six pounds a year if you include tomatoes which have been processed: cooked, canned or squeezed into ketchup, sauces and juices. American tomato production is down slightly since 1964, but the difference is more than made up for by Mexican imports, which have tripled in recent years. Karen Hess is a noted gourmet cook and the co-author of the book The Taste of America. Miss Hess, what`s wrong with the modern American tomato, in your view?
KAREN HESS: Just what those women were talking about: the tomato has no taste. And I, for one, would gladly give up tomatoes the rest of the year - - in fact, I don`t care what they sell the rest of the year if I could have tomatoes in August. You cannot buy a decent tomato in August in New York City.
MacNEIL: What can you tell about the quality of a tomato looking at the outside of it?
HESS: It has to have a good color. This one doesn`t have a bad color, for instance. But that isn`t the whole story. I`ve seen some awfully pretty tomatoes just taste like pink cotton when you taste them.
MacNEIL: Like pink cotton. Now, these are some tomatoes we bought two days ago at that market that you saw on the tape a moment ago. Would you like to open a couple of them up and tell us as a gourmet cook what you think about them? Any of them you like.
HESS: I`ll take the prettiest one first. Well, it doesn`t look bad. There`s more juice than lots of tomatoes have.
MacNEIL: Why don`t you show it over here so we can see on this camera?
HESS: The seeds were better developed than many I have.cut into, I will say that. After that it`s the taste.
MacNEIL: Do you want to taste that one and tell us what you think of it?
HESS: (Laughing.) Of course, I think tomatoes in April is demented -- absolutely demented (cutting tomato). And it is better than normal. MacNEIL: It is. HESS: Yes, definitely. Would you like to taste any?
MacNEIL: No -- try another one and tell us what you think. One of the smaller ones, maybe.
HESS: These are from California, if I remember correctly.... Yes. This one is supposed to be from Florida. First of all, the color is not as satisfactory. The seeds are smaller, as you can see, and it is not as juicy. However, it may be a poor example.
MacNEIL: But basically your complaint about the mass-produced, modern tomato is what -- that it lacks taste, and lacks what else?
HESS: It lacks taste above all. There is something demented when in August I as a cook prefer canned tomatoes from Italy to the tomatoes I buy in the store here in New York City. Now, we have friends in New Jersey and friends in Long Island who grow tomatoes, and occasionally they remember to send us a care package. And those are the only decent tomatoes that I have had to eat in New York since we came back from France.
MacNEIL: Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Yes, Robin, "mature green" is the tomato industry`s term for picking tomatoes before they are fully ripe. It allows tomatoes to be shipped long distances and gives them a longer shelf life once they arrive at their destination. It`s part of the new method for harvesting tomatoes that has been used increasingly since 1964. For a fuller look at the entire technique as employed by growers in Florida we have some excerpts from a film produced by the Naples Tomato Growers, Incorporated.
NARRATOR: The land is flattened and rolled, making it possible to create a false bed and marked rows, thus insuring uniformity. A fertilizer is applied and disked thoroughly into the false bed, going deep into the soil for feeding the plant in its more mature stages. Next, a fumigant is injected into the soil which helps control diseases, insects and weeds. In the same operation a bed press forms a flat, well-moulded mound approximately nine inches high and thirty inches wide. The second fertilizer application is placed on the outside edges of the mound formed, and furnishes nutrition for the growing plant when the roots of the plant extend outward and give sustenance to the plant throughout its entire life.
A uniquely equipped tractor then applies a thin sheet of black plastic over the mound beds. This covering protects the fumigant and fertilizer, conserves water and helps control temperatures. The operation is completed when a disc tucks the plastic in by throwing dirt against the sides and thus sealing the mound, which will be the unique bed for the forthcoming crop of delicious Florida tomatoes. The plastic covering technique not only gives maximum control of water; it also allows use of less water and less fertilizer.
In the hotter months the black plastic is sprayed with aluminum paint, which reduces the temperature up to twenty degrees.
A fourteen- to twenty-one-day wait is observed for the fumigants to act. No more than four weeks later comes the application of an ingenious device called "the planting machine." This modern innovation covers from three to four rows at a time, punching holes through the plastic and injecting water into the holes. Workers riding the machine plant the tomato seedlings and compact the dirt in a single operation.
Within seventy-five to one hundred days after the planting of the seedlings the first of three crops is ready for harvesting. The larger tomatoes are picked for maturity, while remaining tomatoes are left on the vines. An on- the-spot check is made to insure that the harvesters are selecting for the proper maturity. This method enables the farmer to pick a field as needed, instead of daily. The mature tomatoes are picked green. They are, nevertheless, fully grown and mature; they simply have not taken on the pink or red blush.
As local trucks deliver tomatoes from the fields, refrigerated transports are on their way to market with the finished product. The tomatoes move through a warm water bath containing a chlorine solution which cleanses them of bacteria. They are then rinsed with a spray of clear warm water. Undersize tomatoes are eliminated, and gentle, warm air dries the tomatoes remaining and blows away stems and leaves. In the first sorting, tomatoes are selected by color. Culls with blemishes and imperfections are removed. The pink tomatoes are separated at this point, and later will be graded and sized again. These pink tomatoes will then be boxed for shipment to various markets.
The remaining tomatoes are carefully graded by quality control inspectors as they move along on a specially designed padded conveyor belt operation. The tomatoes receive a fine coat of wax and are gently buffed. This operation seals the goodness in and possible bacteria out, and at the same time adds to the shelf life of the tomato.
Tomatoes are carefully separated by grade, size and maturity to meet individual requirements of buyers. Picking tomatoes at the mature green stage is one of the biggest improvements in modern harvesting techniques. Tomatoes produce a natural chemical element called ethylene, which is responsible for their ripening. So the mature green tomatoes are stored for twenty-four to seventy-two hours in special chambers like this, where additional ethylene is applied. With proper temperature and humidity control, the tomatoes start ripening uniformly. This process reduces spoilage, improves the texture of the tomato and insures safer shipping. In Florida there are many different brands of tomatoes grown by this unique method. Some of the best known are Beefstake, Circle H, Home Grown and Harlee.
The fruit is now ready for shipment and continues to ripen naturally. For full, fresh flavor, tomatoes should not be refrigerated by the housewife, but kept at room temperature, stem side up, while they develop their beautiful red color.
LEHRER: That film was made available to us by the Florida Tomato Committee, which recently launched a campaign to improve the public image of the tomato. The manager of the Florida Tomato Committee is Wayne Hawkins. First, Mr. Hawkins, how important is that last point that was made in that film about the consumer taking the tomato and not refrigerating it?
WAYNE HAWKINS: I think it`s very important, and I have some samples here that I can show what we`re exactly talking about.
LEHRER: All right.
HAWKINS: I have tomatoes here that were taken from a degreening room, or gas room, whichever you prefer to call it, last Saturday. These three tomatoes were held at room temperature -- you can see how they`re coming to a nice, full red color. These tomatoes came out of the same box at the same time, and they were placed in a refrigerator. As you can see, they stopped the ripening process. We`re trying to get the housewife to keep the tomato out of the refrigerator just like she would a banana, until it`s fully ripe. Then she can refrigerate it if she prefers to have a cool tomato rather than a room temperature tomato to eat.
LEHRER: All right. Let`s address the basic complaint against your tomatoes and other people`s modern tomatoes. I don`t have to go through it; you`ve heard it, that they`re tasteless and they`re waxy and all these other things.
HAWKINS: I think the key issue is the one I just talked about. If you take a tomato home from the store that is not fully ripe and you try to serve this tomato it is not going to have the taste that you would like to have in a tomato. If you leave it out of the refrigerator, let it fully ripen, it will develop the flavor that we`re talking about. And of course, what is flavor? If I go into a store and order a cup of coffee -- I drink mine black; you probably have cream and sugar in yours -- we`re both drinking coffee. So what is flavor? One point I`d like to make is that there is a very, very small difference between a vine-ripe tomato and a mature green tomato. This is probably one of the most misunderstood points in the United States today. I have here some technically vine-ripe tomatoes; they have just started to show a slight blush of color.
LEHRER: Let`s see if we can see those. Right.
HAWKINS: You can just see a slight blush of color around the blossom end of this tomato. This is a vine-ripe tomato and what everybody`s telling us we ought to be picking. This tomato is a mature green tomato. It does not show the blush of color yet; as you can see, there`s only about six to eight -- at the most, one day`s difference between these tomatoes on a bush.
LEHRER: All right. The central question, of course, that flows out of that, Mr. Hawkins, is why mature green rather than vine-ripe? Why not wait those few extra days or hours and pick them when they`re vine-ripe?
HAWKINS: This vine-ripe tomato must be picked every day. In Mexico, where they have ample labor, they pick tomatoes every day. They grow the same variety in Mexico, by the way, that we do in Florida; it was developed in Florida and they came over and got the seeds and they grow it in Mexico. They pick this crop approximately forty times. We pick the same variety, which is the Walker variety, from three to five times. We pick it at seven to ten day intervals. Naturally we have some tomatoes that are showing color, as you saw in the film. These tomatoes are handled just like vine- ripe tomatoes. The mature green tomatoes, which is the bulk of the crop the way we pick it, are then put in the degreening rooms where a small amount of ethylene gas, which is a natural plant hormone, is added to the atmosphere to bring them onto color -- to help them, in other words, color. The big difference is the cost of labor. In Florida, where we are subjected to minimum wages, social security and all of these things that everybody has in the United States, this is not true in Mexico. The worker in Mexico makes approximately $24.80 for a ten hour day. They can afford to pick them every day; we can`t.
LEHRER: All right, let`s bring Miss Hess in. What do you think about Mr. Hawkins` basic argument that there really is no difference in taste between a vine-ripe tomato and a mature green tomato that then is allowed to ripen in its natural course at room temperature?
HESS: I wish I could believe him. All I know is that I cannot find decent tomatoes in New York City, even in August; and I think it`s criminal. It`s insane.
LEHRER: Is it your position that they should be vine-ripe, or do you have any feeling about that one way or another?
HESS: I used to grow tomatoes, and of course we didn`t pick them till they were ripe. I agree, there doesn`t seem to be an awful lot of difference between what he calls "vine-ripe" and green. But what I know is that the tomatoes that we`re buying have very little flavor.
LEHRER: Well, look; Mr. Hawkins, I`ve got to ask you this question: you say there is no difference in taste, that the tomatoes still taste fine. Why is it that nobody seems to believe you? Why is it that people say what Miss Hess and others have said?
HAWKINS: First of all, I`d like to speak to one point of Miss Hess`. The reason she can`t get a good tomato is August is because Florida`s not in production in August. We`ll try to grow some for her in the future.
LEHRER: (Laughing. ) Okay.
HESS: I`ll wait for them. (Laughing.)
HAWKINS: In coming back to your comment, I would imagine if you were to go home and ask your wife if she goes to the store and buys tomatoes and buys bananas, when she takes them home the tomatoes go in the refrigerator and the bananas go in a fruit bowl.
LEHRER: Well, I do some of the grocery shopping in our house, and I always keep the tomatoes out -- or at least, I try to remember to. But you say that`s it; that`s the only problem, and if people would do that the tomato problem, or the tomato crisis, as we call it, would be over.
HAWKINS: I think they`ll have a much better product, yes. It`s not going to be as good as one they grow in the back yard and pick blood-red off the bush and carry it in the house. Of course, they probably couldn`t ship it across town if they wanted to. If you want to eat tomatoes twelve months out of the year, you`re going to have to pick them at one of these two stages, either mature green or barely showing color. Both of these tomatoes are going to need additional ripening when you receive them, before you serve them.
LEH RER: All right, thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: What has exactly happened to the tomato in the past thirteen years since producers began shipping them mature green has come to symbolize what`s happened to a lot of American agriculture -- mechanization. Jim Hightower was an early critic of U.S. agribusiness. Last year he was the national campaign coordinator for presidential candidate Fred Harris, and he`s now the editor of the bi-weekly newspaper, The Texas Observer. In 1972 Mr. Hightower wrote a book entitled Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times. What`s wrong with tomato production techniques, in your view?
JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, tomato production techniques are dependent on tomato marketing techniques, and basically the marketing industry and the entire agricultural economy has taken over production using farmers as well as consumers, as well as labor within the food industry. We developed a system of centralization of our food supply, which doesn`t make any sense. Why, the film that we saw earlier indicates, I think: all tomatoes come from Florida, Mexico and some from California. Why is that? New Jersey has maybe three, five percent of the tomato industry today; it used to be a major tomato industry there. For years we got along very well with that. We had a marketing system that was located around our population. Now, the hard tomato -- the little nugget that you get in the supermarket in those little plastic trays -- the original motive for that came out of California in about 1947, primarily to eliminate labor. They saw the end of the bracero - - the Mexican labor -- ending, there were no more minorities to import, no more Japanese to come over or any other minority to import, so they were going to have to go to a mechanization process. So to mechanically harvest it they genetically had to redesign the tomato.
MacNEIL: Genetically redesign the tomato?
HIGHTOWER: Yes, there was a man out there named Mr. Hannah, who is also known as "Mr. Tomato" in the tomato industry, who did much of the work on that and bred it to have thick walls and firm flesh and less ,juice, and less flavor as a result.
MacNEIL: Let me ask you this: is it possible in a market as huge, as vast as the United States is to grow and market the kinds of tomato that, for instance, Ms. Hess is nostalgic for?
HIGHTOWER: Certainly. It`s not that the market is too big, it`s that we have centralized the production in order to comply with the needs of Safeway and a few of the giant supermarkets to buy tomatoes, and some of the wholesalers to buy tomatoes. The industry is becoming monopolized -- it already is a shared monopoly in the processed tomato industry; increasingly it`s going to happen in the fresh tomato industry. Tenneco, for example, is the largest marketer of fresh fruits and vegetables in the country, not little farmers; and this gentleman from Florida keeps talking about Mexican tomatoes as though that`s the Mexican government or something, and those are American corporations, for the most part, that are shipping those up here.
MacNEIL: Let`s ask Mr. Hawkins about that. What do you say to that, Mr. Hawkins? Has the tomato marketing been so taken over by a few big concerns and concentrated in certain areas of the country that it`s eliminated the possibility of the old kinds of tomatoes we`ve talked about?
HAWKINS: No, sir, I don`t agree with this. I don`t think the large companies have taken over the total production of tomatoes. In the State of Florida we grow approximately 37,000, 38,000 acres a year, and we have approximately 300 tomato growers that do that. I don`t believe that you could say they`re taking over. Also, I`d like to challenge Jim on one point about the American capital that is in Mexico. I just spent a week in Mexico; it`s true, there is some American capital down there, but for the large part these are American producers that are producing in Mexico.
MacNEIL: Mr. Hawkins, where did the desire come from to have tomatoes twelve months a year? Nature gives us tomatoes in most of our American climate a few months a year, at most. Did you create the desire for a twelve-month market, or did the consumers rise up and demand it all year around?
HAWKINS: That`s kind of a bad question, I think. We`re going to eat twelve months out of the year. If you like tomatoes like I do, I want them every meal, and I think the average consumer wants a good tomato every meal. And I think if she`ll ripen this tomato properly we`ve got a good product for her. It has a thicker wall; it ships better. It does have enough juice in it, it has good flavor to it, it has all the vitamins that were in the old tomatoes that everybody talks about. You hear so much about the good old days, but nobody actually wants to pinpoint what the good old days are, or what we`re really talking about when we`re talking about the good old days.
MacNEIL: What are the good old days, Mr. Hightower?
HIGHTOWER: One pinpoint of it is a good-tasting, fresh tomato.
I think it says it that the industry is having to resort to an advertising campaign to convince consumers that tomatoes taste good. The tomato used to be its own best advertising. People are not stupid, they know whether a tomato is good or not.
MacNEIL: I wonder whether it`s the shipping green which is really the thing. I`ve grown some tomatoes myself, and sometimes you pick them green - - what Mr. Hawkins would call mature green. I`ve put them in a drawer in the dark for a week, and they come out tasting perfectly good. Is it the picking them green and then shipping them, or is it the kind of soil that they`re grown in and the kind of variety that is grown that is the question in this matter?
HESS: I really think it`s the variety above all. Don`t you, Jim? Obviously the soil is very important. I understand that the soil that they grow most of the tomatoes on in Florida, for instance, is man-made, practically. Now, you can`t tell me that you can remember to put in every last nutrient into that man-made soil.
MacNEIL: Mr. Hawkins, what do you say about that?
HAWKINS: I don`t know what she means by man-made soil. I guess the Lord made it all, but we do have different types of soil in Florida. In one of the production areas we grow on almost solid rock.
In other areas we grow on sandy soils, we grow on loamy type soil; there are different type soils. I challenge the point, though, that Jim made, that tomatoes are grown for mechanical harvesting. There`s not a tomato harvested in the United States mechanically for the fresh market, to my knowledge. Not in Florida, and to my knowledge not in California at this time.
MacNEIL: Is there going to be, Mr. Hawkins?
HAWKINS: Well, if the day comes when we can`t get labor to pick them, we may have to work towards this. I would say that we do not have a tomato today in Florida that we can harvest mechanically.
That`s a one-time harvest. We`re picking tomatoes four to five times; the same variety`s being picked in Mexico forty times.
MacNEIL: Mr. Hightower?
HIGHTOWER: They certainly are working toward that; it`s not a matter of waiting till the day comes when they will start working toward it. They`re working toward it right now, in the University of Florida, Purdue University, Rutgers University over here, the University of California at Davis; there`s hardly a fresh fruit and vegetable in America that there is not a research project under way funded by tax dollars to genetically redesign that fruit for mechanical harvesting and for long-distance shipping.
MacNEIL: Let me ask Mr. Hawkins one last question very quickly. Mr. Hawkins, when you taste one of your tomatoes, picked mature green, and then taste a garden-grown tomato do you notice a difference in the taste?
HAWKINS Not if the mature green tomato was allowed to ripen properly. In fact, the USDA states there is absolutely no difference and you cannot tell the difference in a mature green tomato and a vine-ripe tomato if it is properly ripened.
MacNEIL: We`ll have to leave it up to the taste of people who buy tomatoes themselves. Thank you very much, Mr. Hawkins. Good night, Jim. Thank you, Mr. Hightower and Miss Hess. Jim Lehrer and I will be back tomorrow night, when we will be presenting President Carter`s address to the Congress and a follow-up on that. I`m
Robert MacNeil. Good night.
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- This episode features a discussion on tomatoes. The guests are Karen Hess, Jim Hightower, Wayne Hawkins. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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