The Observatory

Mad cow, sane coverage

By Curtis Brainard
May 7, 2012

A few days after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) announcement last month that it had discovered a case of “mad cow disease” in California—the first in the US since 2006—its media liaison took a swipe at reporters, says the website Food Safety News. According to its report:

On the same day it promised to make the findings of its investigation public “in a timely and transparent manner,” USDA also gave the news media a bit of a lecture. Courtney Rowe, USDA’s press secretary, in a rare memo to news organizations, said there have been “an unfortunate amount of misleading articles” on the BSE incident.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s hard to find many articles that fit her description. The media have covered the story rationally, for the most part, shunning both alarmism and indifference.

It quickly came out that a dairy cow from Tulare County had tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the condition’s proper name. Eating diseased animals can lead to a fatal neurological disorder, but early articles included a few key points:

  • They quoted USDA’s chief veterinary officer, John Clifford, stating that the meat from the cow never entered the food supply, that it was never destined for human consumption in the first place. They also cited the World Health Organization’s opinion that BSE isn’t transmitted through cow’s milk.
  • They explained that while at a transfer station en route to a rendering plant, the cow was selected for random tissue sampling as part of a federal program that tests about 40,000 cows (and it soon emerged that it was euthanized on the farm after it lost the ability to stand and that such “downer” cattle are banned from use in food products).
  • They quoted Clifford stating that the cow contracted an “atypical,” rare form of BSE through a random mutation rather than the common variety, making it unlikely that it had acquired the disease though eating contaminated feed, the usual transmission route.
  • They reported that body parts like brain and nerve tissue, which are most likely to carry the disease-causing agents, called prions, are banned from use in food products, and that cattle tissue is banned from cattle feed.
  • They quoted representatives of the Consumers Union fretting that the government’s surveillance program is insufficient and pointing out that while cattle tissue is banned from cattle feed, it’s given to pigs, chickens, and sheep. Those animals and their waste can, in turn, be processed into cattle feed. Some stories also quoted representatives of the Center for Science in the Public Interest expressing concern about U.S.’s substandard animal identification system.
  • They mentioned that there have been three other confirmed cases of BSE in cows in the US—in a Canadian-born cow in 2003 in Washington State, in 2005 in Texas, and in 2006 in Alabama—and that all but the first were instances of the atypical variety, which develops spontaneously.

Some articles leaned more heavily toward either anxiety or insouciance. The most forceful example of the former was a column by Mother Jones’s Tom Philpott, which ran under the headline, “Why You Should Be Worried About the California Mad Cow Case.” He scoffed at the USDA’s “move along, nothing to see here” tone and argued that the BSE discovery raised “two uncomfortable points”:

•  The idea that the discovery of this BSE-stricken cow proves that the U.S. “surveillance system is working” is, well, ludicrous.
•  The California cow’s BSE might have come from feed—and cows are still being fed cow protein.

That’s going overboard, but the points he raised came up elsewhere, in more a more even-handed manner. “Are U.S. food-safety laws too lax?” the San Jose Mercury News wondered, while The Associated Press called the discovery a flat out “stroke of luck.”

Furthermore, The Christian Science Monitor argued, the episode “raises questions about cattle feed.” It highlighted the controversial use of poultry litter, which contains cattle tissue from feed that chickens dropped or ate and excreted, a recurring story in the press.

It was nice to see other articles putting the BSE discovery into perspective, however.

The AP’s Lauran Neergaard reminded readers that no instance of the related human neurological disorder, Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, has ever been linked to U.S. beef. Stressing that other food contaminants, such as salmonella and E. coli, sicken thousands every year, she wrote:

If the mad cow found in California has you wondering about food safety, well, there are plenty of problems that pose serious risks to the food supply. But mad cow disease shouldn’t be high on the worry list.

Likewise, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times began with the statement, “Mad cow disease has the power to terrify, but at this point, U.S. consumers have far more to fear from other sources of food poisoning.” It added, though, that “there’s still reason for concern about this country’s efforts to prevent mad cow.”

The San Jose Mercury News’s suggestion that the U.S. “adopt additional protections against mad cow disease” was more forceful and its board pointed out that the U.K. and Japan have higher inspection standards. (Similarly, The Washington Post had a piece about the lack of mandatory livestock tracking in the U.S., which exists in other countries.)

Even primetime network news produced fairly levelheaded coverage of the BSE discovery, though ABC did play up the scare factor a bit. Diane Sawyer waited until the very end of the report to ask her correspondent, almost as an afterthought, whether there were any real safety concerns. CBS and Fox did much better, though, expressing concern while warding off needless worry.

The latest news is that the USDA tracked down one of the sick cow’s offspring, euthanized it, and sent a tissue sample for testing, which came back negative for BSE. The dairy that it came from and one other are under quarantine.

The media have exaggerated many public-health scares, to be sure, but not this time.

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