I believe the contaminated tomato debacle unfolding over the last week has something to tell us about the factory food system, which supplies much of what we eat. It is fascinating how this came to be embodied in the shape of our tomatoes. A lot of people are asking the question, just what kind of tomatoes are safe to eat? One answer, we are told by news and government, is to suspect our round tomato friends of harboring salmonella. I had to stop and ask why is this? Why round tomatoes?
Although the description has caused confusion, my first thought was that by “round red tomato” they were talking about the class of nondescript tomato one finds commonly in the supermarket produce section, piled high in a bin. Typically, these are large, as nearly perfectly spherical as the tomato board can blandish producers into making them, bland looking orbs sold in the supermarkets and funneled by the ton into the fast food system to be slapped onto burgers. They are the perfect food to fit the machine.
A second later, it occurred to me that if I were to go to my local farmer's market or farm stand looking for tomatoes and I found some decidedly out-of-round, oddly shaped heirloom tomatoes, that I could very likely be assured they were uncontaminated. They are too imperfect, too delicate for the factory food system, and very likely grown on a local farm or garden. Their shape was a key to identifying their probable origin in a distributed, local food system. By the shape of the tomato I could judge its origin and quality, since I knew that no sane commodity grower would grow such a tomato, unfit for the fast food joint, unfit for the average consumer (who has lost contact with farm and garden, with whole food) frightened by a few blemishes, odd colors or funky shapes.
I can't promise you won't get sick from locally grown tomatoes. The independent farm system creates something big agriculture lacks: firebreaks. The decentralized nature of independent farms and their localized customer base create firewalls capable of containing an outbreak. The factory food system grows enormous numbers of a single crop and distributes the harvest through a sprawling food processing system, which spreads and amplifies even a small outbreak in one field across the nation, into all sorts of processed foods, just as happened with contaminated lettuce. It is the nature of the system, which has only dominated for a handful of decades, that has changed our relation to food and presented this problem of “wildfires.”
Although an individual tomato patch might become contaminated, the effects would be isolated to the one farm or local area. There is far less chance of cross contamination on the way to market. The farm down, in the other state, the road is unlikely to suffer the same contamination. A farm depends on its reputation. Any taint or question about its food and the farm will be devastated. Independent farms rely on their reputation to bring return business, unlike big agriculture.
Perhaps it is fitting the warning comes in the form of these alien orbs, signaling with their perfect roundness and flashing reds, the revenge of the round red tomatoes. Although at first glance, the oddly shaped heirloom at the farm stand might seem more alien, those are the fruits that piqued my curiosity when as a child my parents took me to visit farm stands. They were outstanding in the multi-lobed beauty, looking ready to burst. They were bursting with flavor, at least when we got them home and started the barbecue.