The Litigated Tomato

That the tomato came under the scrutiny of the U.S. Supreme Court underscores its vital importance not only as a culinary staple and a cultural icon, but also as a commodity. Though the court’s ruling on the legal status of the tomato did not make such headlines as Brown v. Board of Education or Roe v. Wade, the decision defines the status of the tomato in the American legal system, a ruling that brings the court at odds with science, but in concord with commerce.

Botanically, a tomato is a fruit: the ovary and seeds of a flowering plant, but the tomato has a low sugar content compared to other edible fruits, so we routinely serve it as a component of the main meal. In 1887, tariff laws imposed a duty on vegetables, but not on fruits, so some smart lawyer (we do find occasional evidence of these fabled creatures) who was doubtlessly brutally forced over lunch at the local diner to take on Nature Herself filed a case for the tomato as a fruit.

On May 10, 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of the tariff laws (of course), finding that the tomato should be classified under the customs regulations as a vegetable based on the ways in which it is used and its popular perception as a vegetable (Nix v. Hedden (149 U.S. 304)). The holding of the case applies only to the legal interpretation; the justices did not purport to reclassify the tomato for botanical or other purposes, but the decision stands as an excellent example of a legal fiction.


2 Replies to “The Litigated Tomato”

  1. Botanic is one thing, horticulture is another. Botanically a tomato fruit is a berry, but most horticulturists view “vegetables” (which include other fruits (watermelons, squash) along with roots (carrots, sweet potatoes, stems (celery), leaves (collards, kale), stems (asparagus), and flowers (broccoli) as mass-produced row crops, and “fruits” as long-term woody plants (apples, blueberries, oranges); further compound this with “nut” crops (pecans, almonds). Has to do with, as you say, production and commerce practices.

    1. Here’s where we imagine Pliny being dragged into a Roman court of law to argue the difference between a fig and an olive to settle a dispute over the price of baskets. “O tempora! O mores!”

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