Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Even for a Tomato, Looks Aren’t Everything - New York Times

Even for a Tomato, Looks Aren’t Everything - New York Times

Even for a Tomato, Looks Aren’t Everything

FOR about three years, flavor has been pitted against form in a bureaucratic battle over tomatoes. And although the governor of Florida took sides against it, flavor has prevailed.

In a ruling being issued today by the federal Agriculture Department, a creased and ridged but tasty tomato, the UglyRipe, can be sold outside Florida until late spring.

The line in the salad bowl was drawn when the Florida Tomato Committee, which controls most of the $500 million industry in the state, refused to allow Procacci Brothers to ship UglyRipe tomatoes out of the state. The committee was established by a federal agreement in 1937, and is one of many such groups that regulate agricultural products in several states.

The committee’s rules, called marketing orders, are very strict as to the shape and uniformity of Florida tomatoes that can go to other states during the season, from Oct. 10 to June 15. Flavor is not a factor because, in the committee’s view, it is too subjective.

But the difference, when it comes to UglyRipes, is that their deviation from the norm is not accidental, but the result of breeding. They were developed from a French heirloom called Maramondo that was cross-bred with non-heirlooms to make it more disease resistant and to strengthen the stem.

The favorable comments all had to do with taste, often comparing UglyRipes to homegrown tomatoes.

The tomato committee, which guarantees the consistency of Florida tomatoes, said that the new ruling could create a precedent that might allow inferior tomatoes to get to market. But the rule change applies only to UglyRipes, whose authenticity must be verified from seed to distribution under a new Agriculture Department heirloom program.

Procacci Brothers plans to begin shipping the tomatoes, including some that are grown organically, tomorrow. They will carry the brand name Santa Sweets and each will be nestled in a stretchy white netting to protect the ripe fruit. Among the markets in the New York area that plan to sell them are Pathmark, ShopRite, Waldbaum’s and Whole Foods. The tomatoes will carry a premium price, around $3 a pound.

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