An Example of Midterm: The Tomato: Vegetable or Fruit?

Today, we had a midterm in the “Marketing Across Borders” course in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. Students were asked to elaborate on the trade consequences of a Supreme Court Decision “Nix vs. Hedden” 1893. Our working title is “The Tomato: Vegetable or Fruit?”.

Here is my summary of the case, please feel free to comment or send us your analysis of this case and I will respond to you. Enjoy!

The Tomato: Vegetable or Fruit?

In 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court grappled with an international legal question that continues to confound to this day — does a tomato qualify as a vegetable or a fruit?

Though many associate the tomato with the stews, salads, and sandwiches that are typically the domain of vegetables, any botanist will tell you that the plant meets the scientific definition of a fruit: a seed-bearing structure that  develops from the ovary of a flowering plant.

But in the U.S. Supreme Court case Nix vs. Hedden, the judges unanimously arrived at a different definition. They ruled that imported tomatoes should be taxed as vegetables, which had a 10 percent tariff when they arrived on American shores, rather than as fruit, which carried no tariff.

Though the court acknowledged that a tomato is technically a fruit, it went on to write that according to the “common” definition most people use, tomatoes fall under the same category as other vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, and carrots. In other words, a tomato counts as a vegetable because most people thought it was.

A more recent example of changing definitions in trade policy arose during a trade war between Vietnam and the United States that started in 2001. When cheap imports of Vietnamese catfish threatened to put U.S. producers, who had higher costs, out of business, American lobbyists and lawmakers scrambled to find a way to bar Vietnamese producers from the market.

The coalition persuaded Congress that the word “catfish” only applied to U.S. varieties, not Vietnamese imports, even though there was no biological difference between the fish. Thus, when Congress normalized trade relations with Vietnam, its definition of “catfish” excluded basa or tra, the names applied to Vietnamese catfish.

Even today, the questions explored by the Nix v. Hedden case continue to have implications. What does this Supreme Court case – along with the example of the Vietnamese catfish – tell us about trade policy? Who ultimately defines a product, and how could altering definitions affect trade policy? Do tariffs still play a role in modern-day international trade, and can marketers make a difference?

Please analyze this case.

Michael Czinkota teaches international business and trade at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the University of Kent. His key book (with Ilkka Ronkainen) is “International Marketing” (10th ed., CENGAGE).