(June 13, 4:25 p.m.) Consumers are told to avoid eating a specific produce item. Federal officials struggle to find a cause and a source of pathogen-tainted food. A litany of voices in the media provide conflicting, sometimes untrue, information on a daily basis.

California spinach and lettuce shippers said the salmonella outbreak linked to tomatoes is all too reminiscent of the E. coli outbreak blamed on spinach in 2006. Empathy — and frustration — are common responses to the current situation.

“From my perspective, it always appears the FDA is not moving fast enough. But what is fast enough?” said Tom Nunes Jr., president of The Nunes Co. Inc., Salinas, Calif., and executive board member of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement. “I would have to think that the FDA learns something from these outbreaks, but from the outside looking in, I don’t know what’s causing the FDA to make the decisions they are. The spinach industry went through it and it affected the leafy green industry, and I hate to see what’s happening to the tomato industry.”

Joe Pezzini, vice president of operations for Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif., and the chairman of the executive committee for the marketing agreement, said FDA advisories during the salmonella outbreak have been confusing. He said tomato growers are facing the same issues spinach growers did almost two years ago.

“Regardless of where they are and no matter how good their food safety practices are, they’re all tied at the hip and they’re going to be judged by their weakest link,” Pezzini said. “The whole industry is going to get painted with the same broad brush.

“ … Once you lose consumer confidence and the product has been pulled off the shelf or McDonald’s stops putting tomatoes on its hamburgers, you’ve got a lot of work to do to regain consumer confidence, as we learned in the spinach industry,” he said.

The Florida tomato industry, marketing agreement chief executive officer Scott Horsfall said, in the past year has taken steps to establish specific good agricultural practices — and mandating them through a new state law.

“As an industry in this country, it has taken a lot of steps to emulate what our industry has done in terms of raising the bar for food safety,” Horsfall said.

Horsfall said the tomato industry can regain consumer confidence by assuring their customers that it is doing everything it can to reduce further risk.

“It’s difficult to go out and get a positive message about the steps you’ve taken covered by the media, and it’s expensive to try to go directly to consumers,” he said. “In our case, what we’re trying to do is reach out to the trade and make sure they understand what we’re doing because they are the conduits to the consumer. Research shows consumers trust their grocers and restaurants, so rebuilding confidence at that level is extremely important.”