Not Having a Cow Over Mad Cow — What Gives?

January 01, 2004  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Washington Post  ·  Disease

Why no stampede of panic over the American mad cow?

Remember those Wendy’s commercials from 20 years ago? The ones where the granny would go into competing fast food restaurants, examine the hamburgers and obnoxiously demand, "Where’s the beef?" I’m reminded of those ads as I watch the media and public reaction to the news that mad cow disease has slipped over the border into the United States. My question is: "Where’s the beef . . . hysteria?"

The announcement of mad cow disease is the sort of health scare that would normally have us fear-sensitized Americans reacting in a panic. So why aren’t we out protesting hamburger restaurants or making like the French and dumping manure in McDonald’s parking lots? We’re not lynching cattlemen, tossing the beef from our freezers or converting en masse to vegetarianism. Last I heard, the singer Meat Loaf had yet to change his name to Tofu Burger.

For some reason, we’re not stampeding down the fear trail over the (exceedingly slim) possibility that deadly prions could one day turn our brains into mush. This is notwithstanding the valiant efforts of "organic beef" and vegetarian groups, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), animal rights activists and even most of the Democratic presidential candidates to scare the cow droppings out of us.

"Consumer protection has certainly fallen short," declared CSPI in blasting the Agriculture Department. "Making meat ’safe’ is not a realistic or attainable goal," declared meat-substitute producer Gardenburger on its Web site. And to Democratic hopeful Howard Dean, the mad cow case "raises serious concerns about the ability of this administration to protect the safety of our nation’s food supply."

From the Website of the Animal Rights Activist Group PETA

Nevertheless, beef continues to be what’s for dinner. We’re still buying it – and not the panic. This time, at least. The reasons have to do both with the specific nature of this case and with Americans’ longstanding love affair with the hamburger, or a juicy red steak.

First, irrational as it seems, the media, after an initial flurry of the usual screaming headlines, are for once handling a scare story rationally. While keeping us informed of developments, they’ve generally refrained from the hype and horror that typify coverage of most health scares. In fact, there may be more accusations of media-motivated panic than there are media actually motivating panic."When it comes to the safety of our food, media hysteria will be inversely proportional to actual risks," wrote one food writer, adding, "The mania surrounding mad cow is already proving this point."

But it isn’t. While surveys consistently show that Americans believe the media to be heavily biased generally and biased toward sensationalism in particular, a Food Marketing Institute survey reported on Jan. 12 that only 22 percent of respondents considered the mad cow coverage "negatively biased." A Gallup Poll taken even before the reassuring news that the sick heifer was from Canada, where mad cow disease was already known to exist, showed that 55 percent of Americans had heard a "great deal" about mad cow disease in general, while another 33 percent said they’d heard a "moderate" amount. But those who had heard more were no more concerned than those who’d heard less. Overall, only 6 percent labeled the event "a crisis."

Just brave talk? No. Shares of stock in restaurant chains that rely heavily on beef sales, such as McDonald’s Corp. and RARE Hospitality International, the owner of LongHorn Steakhouse, dipped initially but have since recovered. Jack in the Box’s stock is doing considerably better than before the news hit. Meanwhile, though Gardenburger’s stock more than doubled immediately after the announcement, it is now settling back to its earlier, pre-announcement levels.

A vCJD-infected brain displaying characteristic sponginess.

Why are the media and public still calmly chewing their cud? The disease itself is one mean mother. Properly called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the cow, it’s labeled variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) when transferred to humans. The "spongiform" in "BSE" describes what it does to brains – theirs and ours. It’s invariably fatal, with insanity as its hallmark. It also takes years to show up, meaning something you ate back in 1995 could strike you down next year. Are these not the ingredients for a media fright-fest?

Part of the explanation for the paucity of panic, though probably only a minor one, may be that there’s no cause for it – and even the media know this. Because BSE was found in only one cow and authorities attempted to recall all of its meat, it’s possible that nobody has taken a single bite from it. There’s also no evidence that the prion proteins thought to cause the disease inhabit muscle; rather, they stay in the central nervous system. This would mean that whole cuts are off the hook, and that only parts that Americans generally consider disgusting, such as brains, eyeballs, tonsils and intestines, are potentially dangerous.

Watching the British hysteria of the last decade may also have helped to dampen ours. Since the disease was first detected in herds in 1985-86, nearly 200,000 British cows have been discovered to be infected with the prions, and millions have been slaughtered because of possible infection. The United Kingdom’s top BSE official said in 1996 that as many as half a million Britons would die from the bad beef, while an estimate in the British Food Journal a year earlier pegged potential deaths at as many as 10 million.

vCJD cases, definite and probable, by year in the UK.

In fact, Britain’s vCJD epidemic peaked in 2000, and fewer than 150

cases have been reported to date. A 2001 study in [Science]([ magazine]( estimated that the number will probably top out at about

  1. All of this has caused a minor epidemic of red faces. And having been reported in the American media, the British example can’t be ignored.

Still, a lack of cause for panic has hardly gotten in the way of our pitching other national hysterical fits. For several months last year, you could hardly read even the sports section of a paper without coming across a story about SARS. Headlines like "Contagion of Fear Infects Americans" became self-fulfilling prophecies, while the New York Times and Washington Post between them ran more than 850 articles on the disease. Yet by the time most Americans even learned about SARS, it was already clear that it was a joke compared to the flu, which kills an average of 36,000 Americans a year. Ultimately, about 27 Americans contracted SARS, and none of them died.

Nor can the muted mad cow reaction be the result of Americans’ finally developing immunity to what’s commonly called "the scare of the week." We do tire of individual scares, even ones with some validity, such as the constantly changing colors of the Homeland Security Advisory System. But becoming blasé about one fear doesn’t confer generalized immunity any more than a rabies vaccine will protect you from measles. Even if we were becoming inured, how the populace is reacting or might react doesn’t necessarily influence media coverage. The "farmed salmon will give you cancer" scare of a week ago got more than its share of irresponsible articles, although there’s no evidence that it has had any effect on fish eaters.

A more reasonable explanation is that familiarity breeds a sense of safety. Beef is familiar. It’s still our favorite meat. Americans eat more than 64 pounds per person per year (chicken is its closest competitor, at 53 pounds a year). Cattle-raising is part of the American culture. Maybe our love affair with beef is tied into our romance with the range, and the image of cowboys herding cattle across the plains. Can you think of any movies that feature free-range chicken farmers or pork producers as heroes? Then, too, the mad cow news hit at the same time that beef sales were sizzling due to the low-carbohydrate diet fad — maybe all those determined dieters weren’t about to give up their steak minus potatoes.

Yes, beef was implicated in the Jack in the Box E. coli scare of 1993. But in that case, hundreds became violently ill; there were several deaths, and the primary victims were children. "Having children in the picture changes everything," says Christine Bruhn, a consumer food marketing specialist at the University of California at Davis.

America’s only known vJCD case, Charlene Singh, lived in Britain until she was 13.

There are other influential factors, as well. One is "could it happen

to you?" says David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. It’s reassuring that as far as we know, no American has contracted vCJD from American beef. Even with SARS, there were still those 29 victims. "With the anthrax [letters] scare, we all get the mail so there was panic," says Ropeik. "With the cow, people initially associated it only with Washington State, and only later with a total of eight states."

Another factor, according to Ropeik, is that the media, especially TV, crave visuals. Yet TV news couldn’t do much more than keep showing that one clip of a poor stumbling cow. They did also zero in on a human victim in Florida, but couldn’t avoid explaining that she became infected while living in Britain. Even those images show her lying apparently comfortably in bed with no tubes or life support machines. Hospital tubes scare us.

Ropeik gives journalists a "B" on the mad cow issue "instead of a D minus," which he says is what they usually deserve on their coverage of potential health scares. I agree with that. But do I think that the mad cow (non)reaction is the start of a welcome and overdue trend? Not likely. The anti-fear factors I’ve described are particular to this case, making the lack of hysteria a pleasant but not prophetic exception.

As much as the public complains about media scares, they will continue to occur. Why? Because fear sells. Whether we admit it or not, we love the thrill these scares give us, probably because in most cases — as in watching a horror movie or riding a heart-stopping roller coaster – we know the threat they project is almost certainly a phantom menace.