Rarely has a crisis illustrated so clearly the power of perception over fact than the BSE saga that has so plagued Britain over the last couple of years. Despite Oprah Winfrey's denunciation of the beefburger, you are more likely to be hit by a meteorite than contract CJD, the brain disorder which has been associated with beef infected with BSE. Which is why it only makes sense that the EU is finally lifting the 32-month-old export ban on British beef.
The scale of the media hysteria that surrounded the 1996 ban gave the impression that the beef-eating public were dropping like flies. There have been some tragic cases and action was necessary but by the time the ban came into force, the measures taken had made British beef some of the safest in the world. Altogether 4.45 million cattle have been destroyed since 1988 because of BSE, of which only 174,000 of these were actually confirmed as being infected with the disease. Now according to a new report on BSE from the EU, a wave of 'unscientific and unnecessary slaughter' following a rise of BSE cases on the Continent is likely to cost the European Commission $3 billion this year alone. The British face a tough battle to remove the stigma attached to its beef and regain ground in foreign markets.
The Meat and Livestock commission has said that it will be lucky if sales return to 10%of the pre-ban level by the end of next year. The commission, which previously concentrated on lobbying to lift the ban, is now conducting research into consumer attitudes on the continent to help it to formulate a consumer strategy. The results are likely to make for depressing reading.
In its early days, the BSE crisis prompted an ugly nationalism. The French 'Viand Francais' and German 'Deutschland, Deutschland, Deutschland' campaigns driven by farmers' organisations and regional governments effectively erected trade barriers.
Now, with a ban on Portuguese beef in place, attention is likely to turn to other quarters. However, there is still a belief, particularly in Northern Europe, that BSE continues to be rampant in the UK, and consumer groups have been actively fighting the ban. An opinion poll undertaken by the Meat and Livestock Commission two weeks ago shows that only 7% of a 1,000 plus sample of French consumers questioned believe that British beef is safe. Commendable safety measures have been put in place - including a government certification agency, Assured British Meat, and the creation of genealogy passports for animals enabling diseases to be traced.
But if the fear created by BSE is ever to be erased, and the reputation of British beef restored, any public relations activity will have to get to grips with the fact that consumer fears are often less than rational.