Any North American who has eaten a winter tomato - on a fast-food salad, sub, burger, pita, wrap, pizza slice, burrito, taco or pile of nachos, or purchased one from a supermarket, has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave.
"That's not an assumption," says US Attorney Douglas Molloy, "that's a fact."
Molloy is a state prosecutor who specializes in human trafficking, and on any given day has six to twelve slavery cases going.
Barry Estabrook chronicles this in his book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Slavery comprises one chapter. There are many other reasons to feel horrified at conventional commercial tomato production (check out the chapter on pesticides and other chemicals), but I'll stick to slavery.
Here's how it works.
Migrant workers, many of whom speak no English, (some don't even speak Spanish, hailing from indigenous villages in Mexico) make their way to Florida. Some are driven for days (without a break)(urinating into bottles) from where they crossed the border in Texas and are then sold to a crew boss for cash (they don't see this money - the driver does, and that's it). They're then obligated to work off the price of their purchase, picking tomatoes.
They're charged rent.
One worker's accommodations were in a truck box in a yard. No windows. No power. No running water. A corner of the box served as a toilet for him and three others.
They're charged for meals.
The food provided to that same worker was sparse and disgusting. It often ran out before everyone had taken his share. And was only given out six days a week.
They're given credit for alcohol, to which they soon become addicted.
They're charged for everything else too. For instance, for one worker to garden hose himself down in the yard after a day's work was five dollars.
Their debt is kept tabulated by one of their bosses. It's never paid off.
They aren't give a day off.
They aren't allowed to leave.
One ex-slave gave testimony that if a worker got sick or was too exhausted to go to the fields he was "kicked in the head, beaten with fists, slashed with knives or broken bottles, and shoved into trucks to be hauled to the worksites. Some were manacled in chains."
Another testified seeing a crew member run away from a field. The bosses brought him back in their truck. "The man's face was so bloody and swollen that he was unrecognizable. He could not walk. 'This is what happens when you try to get away,' the boss said."
How can corporations condone this? They don't. Subway buys their tomatoes from a produce company - the one with the best price. The produce company buys them from a grower - the one with the best price. The grower hires a work crew to pick the tomatoes - the one with the cheapest labour.
The US Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act to combat this. The original version would have made any business or person who profited from the work of slaves culpable. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch insisted that clause be removed. It was.
So far, the only punishment goes to the crew bosses. And illegal migrant workers (who don't speak English - or Spanish) rarely come forward to testify. Only one percent of the 15 000 yearly cases are prosecuted.
The truly unfortunately punchline to this grotesque joke is that conventionally grown tomatoes are utterly flavourless. Would anyone say otherwise?
They're also very low in nutrients, and high in chemical residue.
But we expect a salad or sandwich should include them. And that they should be available all year. For cheap.
There are alternatives. Whole Foods is the only supermarket chain that has agreed to only sell tomatoes from growers paying a living wage. We can lobby other chains to do the same. We can refuse to buy their conventional tomatoes.
We can stop eating fast food, and write to their headquarters telling them why.
We can write to our government reps, asking them to address this problem. We can write to Orrin Hatch, and let him know what a great legislator he is.
There are organic and heirloom tomatoes sold at farmer's markets. They cost more. And they aren't available year round. But they taste like tomatoes.
And is our insistence on convenience and thrift in any possible way worth the abject misery happening right now - today! - in our modern, civilized, advanced, prosperous, technological world? In exchange for little off-pink circles that taste like nothing?