By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Just what will become of the proposed feed ban remains an open question. An FDA decision is not expected for several months; if the agency goes with the ban, it's not clear it would stand a chance at preventing the disease. In England, cows that were born years after ruminant-to-ruminant feeding was banned are still getting sick at a rate of several hundred a month. Recently, scientists in Iceland caused a stir when they announced that they'd found hay mites--tiny bugs related to the ones that show up in house dust--carrying the agent that causes scrapie. And there's some indication that infected animals can pass the disease on to their calves. Any of those possibilities would mean that BSE could continue cycling through the cattle population, in Britain or elsewhere, no matter what the animals eat.
Feed ban or not, it's easy to see why cattle folks have been feeling defensive lately. Between stories about hormone injections, fecal matter on steaks, and deadly e-coli bacteria, beef has taken its share of public-relations lumps lately, and enemies--health gurus, vegetarians, animal-rights advocates--seem to lurk everywhere. Prices have been low for years, and many ranchers are worried about competition from Mexican and Canadian imports. BSE could not have come at a worse time. Four weeks after the British science task force's announcement, according to a survey commissioned by the NCBA, some 86 percent of consumers had "heard, read or seen something about 'mad cow disease' in the past two weeks," and almost one-third were eating less beef as a result. (On the bright side, the NCBA told its members, "There was an offsetting decline in the number who listed diet/health reasons for giving up beef.")
Worries about PR aren't confined to the beef industry proper. Agriculture departments, in England as in the U.S., are set up with the dual responsibility of both monitoring and promoting agribusiness, and there's a busy revolving door between the public and private sector (the NCBA's Weber spent 10 years working for the government). In England, it was a government minister who came up with the most memorable PR stunt of the whole saga so far, back in 1990: In front of the world's television cameras, then-Minister of Agriculture John Selwyn Gummer grinningly fed his 4-year-old daughter a burger. His boss, Prime Minister John Major, didn't sound entirely convinced when he told Parliament that "I am advised that British beef is a safe and wholesome food."
U.S. officials watched the U.K. debacle carefully. In 1991, APHIS--the same agency that had come up with the divided opinion on ruminant feeding--prepared a PR plan for a BSE crisis. "The mere perception that BSE might exist in the United States could have devastating effects on our domestic markets for beef and dairy products," the document--a copy of which was obtained by the newsletter PR Watch through the Freedom of Information Act--warned. "A number of articles already published could potentially create alarm among U.S. customers."
By way of contravention, the paper recommended avoiding the term mad cow disease (even though, it noted, reporters and the public might have "difficulty pronouncing 'bovine spongiform encephalopathy'"). Officials were advised to refrain from guaranteeing beef's safety "when, in fact, absolute safety cannot be proven." They should appear "open and honest" rather than "involved in a cover-up." And finally, "close cooperation with industry groups and other agencies of Government" was crucial.
That, more or less, was the script followed after the British commission's announcement March 20. Within days, the USDA assembled a meeting of 70 top "health and meat experts" including representatives from various embassies, industry reps such as Weber, and a bevy of government officials. After a closed-door meeting, members told the press that everyone agreed the chances of BSE in the U.S. were slim, that enough had been done to protect the public, and that the U.S. would even give technical assistance to the ravaged Brits. The same message was repeated in scores of news conferences, press releases, and one-on-one briefings over the next weeks.
In cases where all that didn't work, the gloves came off. On April 16, Oprah Winfrey did a show on mad cow disease featuring NCBA spokesman Gary Weber and rancher-turned-food activist Howard Lyman, who ended up doing most of the talking. Cattle futures dropped 20 percent in the next couple of hours; one analyst averred how traders were particularly worried about all the "homemakers who are at home and... watching Oprah."
The response was swift. Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Rick Perry--the same guy who two weeks earlier had staged a barbecue/press conference where reporters munched on smoked brisket--asked his state's attorney general to prosecute Lyman, Oprah, and her production firm under a new "food disparagement" law. (Texas and 11 other states have such laws, and more-- including Minnesota--have been considering them. They generally forbid speaking ill of foods unless you have "sound scientific inquiry, facts or data.") A Texas rancher also filed suit, and on April 23, Oprah announced a follow-up show featuring only Gary Weber. "You all need to know, you cattle people, that we're just dependent on y'all out there," Reuters quoted her as saying.