A three-year bureaucratic battle over what constitutes the ideal tomato has ended, and flavor has won out over looks, The New York Times reports (registration required). The USDA is set to issue a ruling today that an unattractive-but-tasty tomato called the UglyRipe can be sold outside its native Florida—and the fracas surrounding this heirloom-mainstream hybrid sheds light on why supermarket tomatoes are often so awful.
Why couldn’t the UglyRipe’s growers ship the wrinkly little orbs wherever they pleased in the first place, you ask? Because the Florida Tomato Committee, which was was established by federal agreement 70 years ago, strictly regulates the shape and uniformity of the state’s tomatoes with rules known as marketing orders. “Flavor is not a factor because, in the committee’s view, it is too subjective,” says the Times. Florida is the top producer of fresh tomatoes in the U.S., so that committee’s preferences may explain why the tomatoes at your local Safeway look like heaven and taste like mealy nothingness.
But Florida tomatoes aren’t the only produce items subject to wacky rules: Between 25 and 40 foodstuffs are governed by marketing orders at any given time. According to the USDA, these orders are “designed to help stabilize market conditions for fruit and vegetable products” and “maintain the high quality of produce that is on the market.” All organic crops are exempt from marketing orders, but many seemingly esoteric crops aren’t: Washington/Oregon fresh prunes, southeastern California grapes, Colorado potatoes, Georgia Vidalia onions, and Washington/Oregon Walla Walla onions all have their own quality-control committees. I just hope the folks in charge of something called “Far West spearmint oil” take flavor into account.