Monday, January 31, 2005

The federal government protects us from ... ugly tomatoes

The Miami Herald covers the recent controversy about ugly tomatoes. After several years of leniency, the Florida Tomato Committee has cracked down on a local variety of tomatoes called the UglyRipes, which are apparently tasty but frequently misshapen. Here is the growers' complaint in the Herald article:
''Their regulation is working against the public interest,'' fumed Joe Procacci, the 78-year-old chief executive and co-founder of the Philadelphia-based company, adding that he's got the demand to prove it.
The grower accused the committee members of being jealous of his successful, if offbeat, product. Here is the committee's rebuttal:
Not the case, Brown said. The committee, he said, was simply holding up the standards for one of Florida's signature agricultural products as is its federal mandate. What Procacci calls special, he says, is really just ``a branded round tomato with a marketing scheme.''
For many decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has helped farmers enforce grading standards for agricultural products. Once upon a time, there was a policy justification for these standards. Before the internet, it was difficult for wholesalers in one part of the country to determine the quality of a shipment they were buying from another part of the country. Almost all agricultural products were undifferentiated commodities, so branded marketing was not available to provide an incentive for quality controls. USDA's standards provided the solution, by providing a language to describe exactly what criteria the product should meet. But, in the modern age, the standards are beginning to seem like an anachronism. Among other problems, the grading standards reflect poor environmentalism, because they sometimes encourage heavier use of agricultural chemicals in order to protect the product from cosmetic blemishes. Here, for your amusement, and with no exaggeration (honest), is a selection from the standards that protect us from ugly tomatoes:

(1) When containers are marked in accordance with Table I, the markings on at least 85 percent of the containers in a lot must be legible.
(2) In determining compliance with the size designations, the measurement for minimum diameter shall be the largest diameter of the tomato measured at right angles to a line from the stem end to the blossom end. The measurement for maximum diameter shall be the smallest dimension of the tomato determined by passing the tomato through a round opening in any position.
(b) In lieu of marking containers in accordance with (a) above or specifying size in accordance with the dimensions defined in Table I, for Cerasiforme type tomatoes commonly referred to as cherry tomatoes and Pyriforme type tomatoes commonly referred to as pear shaped tomatoes, and other similar types, size may be specified in terms of minimum diameter or minimum and maximum diameter expressed in whole inches, and not less than thirty-second inch fractions thereof, or millimeters in accordance with the facts.
But I shouldn't make fun. You can imagine the authors of the preceding passage do not think ugly tomatoes are a joking matter.

Here is a link to the Perspectives on Liberty weblog's coverage of this controversy:


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