Archive for the 'Dirty Business' Category

This summer, I will buy tomatoes

Tomatoes are OK with meAs one might expect by taking a look at this blog’s header graphic, I’ve been getting quite a bit of email about the tomato recall. I have been reading the stories, the analyses on various listserves and blogs, and the lists of precautionary measures.

I’m going to be honest with you. Banning spinach is one thing entirely. But tomatoes? Them’s fighting words.

The reality is this: the tomatoes that have been banned are the ones that, to be quite blunt about it, suck. Not that the ones on the “OK” list are all that great. I have bitten into more nasty-foul grape tomatoes from the grocery store than I care to count, and finally stopped buying them because I was so tired of the pop-bite-spit-into-trash-can routine I’d mastered in my office at lunchtime. There are amazing tomatoes and there are bad tomatoes, and life is too short for bad tomatoes.

But what I fear is the backlash against the good stuff. What’s going to happen this summer, when tomato season in the U.S. peaks, and people go to their local farmer’s markets and turn up their nose at the selection of Brandywines and Juliets? Because, to be honest, while I feel terrible for the 167 people (and probably more who have yet gone unrecognized) who have suffered from salmonella because they ate a bad tomato, I’d bet good money on the fact that they ate a bland, pale-red slice not worthy of the name TOMATO.

This is the worst unkindness of all, really. I’m a risky eater. I will eat street food in places that no one would recommend the eating of street food. I have most certainly eaten meat that was probably not in the pork-beef-chicken-lamb continuum, but it was highly spiced, so I couldn’t tell the difference anyway. I used to brush my teeth with the tap water in Nigeria (and yes, I realize I put myself at great health risk, but I was 11 and petulant and trust me, my father punished me well enough on the day he figured out I had been doing that, so there’s no need to yell at me now).

I have also suffered from food poisoning so bad I thought I would die. (It had nothing to do with Nigerian water. In fact, the only place I’ve gotten food poisoning? The U.S. of A.) Like I said before, I don’t wish that on anyone.

But it seems to me that by banning salsa at Baja Fresh, all anyone’s doing is raising the panic level. Instead, why don’t we take a look at the root causes of why salmonella, which used to be in the purview of chickens and eggs, has now crossed the road to crawl into the body of a tomato? Whether the problem is spinach, or tomatoes, or Jack in the Box burgers, maybe the problem here is not a particular ingredient or food item, but a sign of a larger, more fundamental weakness in our food system.

As for me, I’m going to continue eating tomatoes the way I have for at least the past few years: purchased from regional farmers (since I’m not currently harboring any plants of my own). Local, preferably heirloom, tomatoes. As far as I’m concerned, the pleasure of that first, ripe, summer tomato will far outweigh the miniscule risk that it might make me sick.

Keep Marion Jones out of the garden

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day Marion Jones’ recent admission that she lied to Federal investigators about using steroids has gotten me thinking a lot about gardening.

It’s not as much as a stretch as it might seem. See, I’ve become a fan of gardening. But long before I liked to plant things, I became a huge fan of sports. I spent hours glued to my grandmother’s television in the study off the dining room during the 1984 Summer Olympics, and when I wasn’t watching, I was outside, conducting my own imaginary Summer Games, in which I medaled in track, field, dressage and rhythmic gymnastics. Don’t get between me and my ribbon, people. On my grandmother’s patio, I scored perfect 10s with my undulating strip of purple satin.

I ran track in high school, and so, by the time Marion Jones came on the scene, was more than aware of what it meant to run as fast as she did. I knew that for me to even come close to her in a race, my feet would have to go approximately twice as fast as I could make them go on my most adrenaline-charged days, and the very fact that she had the sheer cahones to go out there and shoot for five gold medals? I swooned. Marion Jones was my hero that year, and when she didn’t make her five golds, I felt a weird combination of incredibly sad for her that she hadn’t achieved all she’d set out to do and thrilled that she’d still medaled five times.

She embodied pure sport. Watching her, I could imagine what it felt like to come off the curve of the track onto the straightaway of the 200 meters—my absolute favorite moment of that particular race—when you slingshot down and just hold on for dear life, arms pumping, feet serving as nothing more than propulsive devices. And when she won, Marion Jones looked so grateful, and beautiful when she smiled, and she celebrated without—like some other athletes—making the U.S. look like a bunch of ungracious, unsportsmanlike jerks.

So we’ve come to find she cheated. I wasn’t surprised, to be honest. My opinion of world-caliber athletes has been dropping by exponents in the last five to seven years, as more and more test positive for one steroid or another. Rafael Palmeiro? You broke my heart. Floyd Landis? You’re a dirt bag, dude. Jose Canseco? That’s Jose Cansucko, thank you very much.

I used to lump steroids in with athletic programs from despotic nations—countries so desperate for the win they couldn’t help but turn their female swimmers into oddly-shaped, hairy rectangles. But now I don’t trust anyone operating at a truly elite level.

I love pure sports. Sports that demonstrate the dazzling skill of athletes and what the human body can do. Not the human body plus a bunch of poison. Just the human body. Alone. Fabulous and amazing.

And for that reason, I choose to plant my yard and not add a bunch of chemicals to the soil in which I’m raising my food. Much as I believe in the purity of sport, I believe in the purity of food—that it should be nourishing rather than poison, and that it should come from a balanced environment that has been as nurtured as the plants that grow it.

I’m not a total purist. I still attend Major League Baseball games, and I am already plotting for how I can watch as much of the Beijing Olympics as I possibly can, even though I know not all the cheaters get caught. I don’t always buy organic vegetables at the store—in fact, often, I’ll pick the locally-grown item over the organic if the option is one or the other. This is not a perfect world, and I do believe that the environmental impact of shipping food long distances is far worse than the environmental impact of pesticide and fertilizer use.

But when we talk about acting locally in the global fight against environmental catastrophe, the one place we all have the most control is in our own yards. We have the choice: use Scotts Miracle-Gro? Or Terracycle? Dump a bunch of chemical fertilizer on the vegetables we plan to eat, and let that leach into the soil and run off into the local water supply, or try a less harmful product? We might lose a little in terms of how big our tomatoes grow, but we gain a long-term benefit that we can’t even quantify yet.

Whether we’re growing vegetables in beds or annuals in pots, as garden and landscaping consumers, we make a choice every day: Preserve the purity of the environments on our own properties, or choose to cheat a little bit. Or maybe cheat a lot. We can take what nature has given us and appreciate that amazing bounty, or we can get greedy and grab for more than we deserve. And, like Marion Jones, we can only go down that path for so long before it catches up with us. Cheaters never win, and when it’s the health of our planet that’s at stake, there’s only one choice my values will allow me to make: I can’t cheat in my own yard.

No, no. Green is MY color.

I just have one more thing that I need to say about this TerraCycle-Scotts MiracleGro lawsuit settlement issue, which, if you haven’t noticed, is completely sticking in my craw.

(OK, I just have one more thing that I need to say right this minute — I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this another day, as well…)

TerraCycle can’t use a green and yellow color combination on their packaging because Scotts MiracleGro has trademarked it? Excuse me? So if I were to decide I was selling hummus or something, could I just decide I wanted my label to be mauve and orange (this is a hypothetical, folks, a hypothetical…), and then could I trademark that color combination? Or any other? I mean, I fully understand protecting one’s label design, and I know all this is a very sensitive topic for which many lawyers make an awful lot of money (and that’s good, because some of my very best friends are lawyers), but what? What?

I need to stop thinking about this. It’s turning me into The Irritable and Not Pleasant To Be Around Gardener.

Quoted through clenched teeth

A strange press release landed in my inbox today: a joint release from Scotts MiracleGro and TerraCycle—a short one—just a paragraph loaded with legalities and quotes that sounded as if they had been delivered through clenched teeth. The release addressed a settlement of the lawsuit Scotts filed against TerraCycle earlier this year, claiming trademark infringement and other goodies.

“We recognize that Scotts filed this lawsuit based on a legitimate need to uphold the accuracy of advertising claims and protect its trademark rights,” said Tom Szaky, TerraCycle’s founder and CEO. “We also regret certain statements that were made about Scotts in the heat of litigation. Now that the parties have resolved their differences, TerraCycle is looking forward to providing consumers with an array of garden and lawn care products in the marketplace.”

Of course, I believe Tom Szaky said this about as much as I believe I could grow a blue rose. These quotes were never delivered at all. They were manufactured in the Scott’s MiracleGro Corporate Communications department, and certainly run by dozens of lawyers, and probably run by the Vice President of Hoo Ha and the Vice President of Wickety-Wack.

Of course, TerraCycle’s PR people certainly had input on Szaky’s quote, probably writing it up under legal duress in the first place and then emailing it over, and then there were probably conference calls, and people rolling their eyes across conference room tables, and a late night last night while everyone hashed this out some more, and maybe early calls to reporters or whatever. I’ve been around those conference room tables. I know all too well how this works.

The sad thing? We’re never going to get the whole story unless someone gets on the journalistic stick, and maybe we won’t even know the truth then. Was TerraCycle really in the wrong? Or did Scotts MiracleGro throw enough money at the problem to make it go away? After all, in the same press release, Jim King, Scotts spokesperson, talked about “protection of the valuable Miracle-Gro brand.”

Valuable as a business, sure. But I think it’s equally valuable to be a steward of the land we choose to garden or not garden. I think it’s equally valuable not to dump a bunch of poison into potting soil and sell it to people who don’t know any better.

I say this even though I have caught people I love with lots of bags of MiracleGro potting soil on their decks. Ahem. You know who you are. And you know I would prefer you’re not eating poisoned vegetables.

As part of the agreement announced today, TerraCycle has to do the following:

  1. TerraCycle has agreed that it no longer will make advertising claims of product superiority to Miracle-Gro products to ensure accuracy in its advertising. More specifically, TerraCycle has agreed that it will not claim that its products are better than, or more effective than, or as good as Miracle-Gro products. In addition, TerraCycle may not claim that any independent tests or university studies were conducted to support any such claims.
  2. TerraCycle has also agreed to change its packaging so it will not use a green and yellow color combination, for which Miracle-Gro owns a trademark registration. This change will be made to avoid any possible confusion with Miracle-Gro’s trade dress.
  3. The court order and the settlement agreement will be posted on TerraCycle’s Web page. TerraCycle also agreed to phase out this site after three months.

I’ve been invited to address additional questions to a particular spokesperson at Scotts. I’m considering making that call. Are there any questions you would like answered? I’m happy to ask…and write…on behalf of my commenters.

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