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The Metrics of Fear: The USDA and Mad Cow Disease

The global anxiety that erupted following the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States last month offers a compelling contrast between risk and fear. How disproportionate is the current fear in relation to the actual risk? Both can be measured through the fine metrics of headlines and bottom lines. But the question for the USDA, and the industry as a whole, is not how to measure the effects, but how to manage them.

The global anxiety that erupted following the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States last month offers a compelling contrast between risk and fear. How disproportionate is the current fear in relation to the actual risk? Both can be measured through the fine metrics of headlines and bottom lines. But the question for the USDA, and the industry as a whole, is not how to measure the effects, but how to manage them.

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Over the past two weeks, fear has paralyzed US beef exports. To date, some three-dozen nations have halted beef trade with the US, shelving the country’s $3.7 billion-dollar beef-export industry. Delegations from Japan, Mexico, and South Korea — the three largest importers of US beef — have been trading shores, spurring “fact finding missions” complete with teams of foreign investigators descending into the bowels of American slaughterhouses. Vendors in places like Tokyo and Mexico City have placed signs in their windows, assuring customers their beef is “not American.” New terms like prions and “cattle depopulation” have worked their way into the lexicon through mainstream media.

In reality there is no clear line between the anxiety palpable in the media and risk of an epidemic. Scientists have attested that the chance of contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human form of mad cow, from US beef is mind-numbingly small. Even without improved industry regulations, which ostensibly eliminate the chance of exposure, the disease is simply hard to catch. During the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) were discovered in UK cattle, and though millions of people were exposed, only 137 have died to date. And that’s before any protective measures were taken. Comparatively, more people die in auto accidents every day in the US than have died to date in the UK mad-cow crisis. Cardiovascular disease, the biggest killer in the US, drops almost a million people a year. Cancer isnt far behind; over half a million Americans died last year alone.

How irrational is the fear of catching vCJD? One 2001 study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis concluded that even if mad cow went unchecked in US cattle, the disease would fail to take hold and die out on its own in a few years. Why? Cattle in the US are slaughtered before the disease has a chance to take hold. So where is the logic? Current health regulations and sheer statistics favor American beef, but the more fuzzy metrics of irrational fear will ultimately cost the industry billions. The lesson to spin-doctors: every product is vulnerable to fear — whether its Tylenol, tourism (SARS) or beef. Whether the USDA can pull the industry out of its current tailspin will depend on how quickly it can educate a frightened global audience.

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