(June 10, STAFF EDITORIAL) Too specific. Too vague. Too slow. Too aggressive.

All of the above criticisms may apply to the handling of the recent linkage of Salmonella Saintpaul to tomatoes by the Food and Drug Administration and various federal and state agencies (See Story, A1, in The Packer’s June 9 print or digital edition).

Unfortunately, the criticisms are easy to level, but not so easy to apply in reality.

The FDA was too specific in warning consumers in Texas and New Mexico to avoid round red and roma tomatoes. Shouldn’t consumers in other states receive the warning? On the other hand, the warning was too vague. Many cocktail-style tomatoes are round and red. Many greenhouse tomatoes are round and red yet not sold on the vine, but the FDA was saying it was OK for consumers to eat tomatoes on the vine from greenhouses.

The New Mexico Department of Health was perhaps too aggressive June 4 in naming Mexico as the likely source of the product. At that time, the FDA stated it was impossible to say whether the tomatoes were domestic or imported.

And because the foodborne illnesses occurred over so long a stretch, the tomatoes very likely did not come from one single grower. There is a possibility they were contaminated somewhere along the supply chain.

Yet, despite the rush to a conclusion, there is legitimate criticism that parties have acted too slowly. This situation affects the entire tomato category. By extension, it affects products that are used with tomatoes, such as fresh basil and some salad items. A lot of people will lose a lot of money over this.

In outbreaks that decimate a category, it’s absolutely imperative to say the right thing at the right time.

There needs to be better coordination between state and national organizations. The overseeing parties must work closely with both the growing community and retailers to ensure that public comments do not unintentionally mislead consumers or create false perceptions.

The utmost importance is finding the source. Until then, all handlers are presumed guilty and suffer the consequences of lower sales.