Let Them Eat (Ugly) Tomatoes

Ordering a sandwich for lunch today? How about some lettuce and a slice of cardboard with that?

Cardboard. That's how customers describe the taste of winter tomatoes to produce-man Joe Procacci. Looking to improve off-season flavor, Mr. Procacci developed a tomato called the UglyRipe.

It's exactly what its name implies. Scarred by crevices, it's not much to look at, but its growers advertise it as "exceptional" in taste.

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Customers apparently agree. Procacci initially saw sales of his Florida-grown tomatoes triple - until the Florida Tomato Committee put the kibosh on the UglyRipe last year because it doesn't meet the committee's standards for looks.

Anyone who goes to a grocery store in winter can recognize the Florida tomato, which accounts for 70 percent of US fresh tomatoes at this time of year. They're uniformly round, baseball-sized, pale and - subjectively speaking - not very flavorful.

The committee has decided that Procacci can ship his UglyRipes out of state, but only those that meet the Florida growers' criteria - which means, next to none. Letting the "uglies" sell up north would open the floodgates to any other type of misshapen tomato, the committee argues.

The committee appears to be technically within its rights. It's backed by a 1937 federal provision that allows farmers to join together and set marketing and quality standards for their produce.

But to Americans who might want a tastier tomato in the middle of winter it just looks like the committee is getting in the way of free trade.

There's a new tomato on the block. Let the people decide if it's any good.

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