Sunday, 10 May 2020

149 us 304 or clearing the docket

Via our faithful chronicler we learn that this day along with many other events of pith and moment marks the 1893 anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision in the case of Nix v. Hedden that ruled that the tomato be classified as a vegetable and not a fruit for the purposes of customs and tariffs. Whilst seemingly frivolous—and harmless and even comparatively wholesome—and not a matter for the high court, it is a nuanced case with repercussions in terms of future US trade policy decisions (see also) and of course the US resolution six years later to annex Hawaiʻi at the urging of a pineapple magnate (previously here and here).
In the 1840s, a Mister John Nix founded a fruit shipping company in New York City that was the first operation to bring in produce from Bermuda and after four decades of nearly frictionless business, the administration of Chester Arthur imposed heavy protectionist barriers on the importation of food, with fruit but not vegetables being exempt. Lobbyists and tomato dealers persuaded regulators that the botanical definition should prevail with domestic growers crying foul and filed suit against Nix’ business and others,  championed by Port of New York customs assessor Edward L. Hedden, progressing through the justice system and calling on dictionaries as expert witnesses. The technical definition having no bearing on commerce or trade (tomatoes are ‘fruit of the vine’ because they bear seeds), once it made it to the Supreme Court, vacating the rulings of lower courts, ruled unanimously that custom, cuisine and popular meaning. The legal outcome also ruled that beans—though botanically a seed—were to be treated as vegetables, though less fraught and no known knock-on effects. Also uncontroversially, in the European Union regulatory regime a carrot is classified as a fruit but only when used in jams and preserves. Going against precedent, the US Food and Drug Administration under Reagan infamously deemed ketchup to be a vegetable for nutrition purposes for school lunch programmes.