'It can't happen here!' This is the mantra scientific experts, the
government and cattle-related industries use to reassure Americans that
bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) - or mad cow disease - is not a
threat. While it has killed nearly 100 people in Europe, experts say a
person is statistically more likely to be crushed by a grand piano on
Park Avenue than contract the deadly syndrome from US products.
But try telling that to the media. A March Newsweek cover story, and
recent reports on 60 Minutes II and 20/20, addressed the ominous
question: 'Can it happen here?'
And when the American Meat Institute (AMI) held a BSE briefing in March,
the media turned out in force. 'We were flabbergasted by the interest,'
says Janet Riley, AMI's VP of public affairs. 'It concerns me. They are
so eager to report BSE, and a nervous media might get
Too close for comfort
It's not such a remote possibility, experts suggest. In 1997 the Food
and Drug Administration banned cattle feed containing 'ruminant
material' (ground up meat and bone meal of dead cows), which is believed
to have sparked the BSE problem in the UK. Yet in January of this year,
the FDA announced that cattle feed tested in Texas contained a low level
of ruminant material.
Two months later, the US Department of Agriculture seized and destroyed
a flock of 233 sheep imported in 1996 from the Netherlands and Belgium
because the animals may have been exposed to BSE-contaminated feed.
Media scrutiny was particularly intense following these events -
portending what might occur should BSE be conclusively identified in
America. And the impact of even a single US case could reach far beyond
beef, as bovine-related materials are used to manufacture pet food,
cosmetics, vaccines, nutritional supplements and medical devices.
Some criticize trade groups and bovine-related industries for
reinforcing the message that BSE won't happen in the US.
'If it hits, it would be more shocking to Americans because they have
been hearing for years that it could not happen here,' says Dan Puzo,
SVP and head of Edelman's food practice.
'The risk is great because if it suddenly hits here, people will say,
'My God, we've been lied to,'' says Jeff Nelson, president of Vegsource
Interactive, a vegetarian lifestyle publishing group.
'I'm sure they are deathly afraid from seeing the decimation of the meat
industry in Europe,' Nelson says. 'From a PR standpoint, the meat
industry's game is to reassure everybody that it is fine.'
Even without a US case, a recent Porter Novelli survey found that 14% of
people have changed their food purchasing or eating habits because of
recent reports about BSE and foot and mouth disease. The diseases are
unrelated, but public confusion may have exacerbated fears. The PR
challenge is to reassure consumers without dwelling on the science, and
prepare for the worst without inciting panic.
Edelman and Hill & Knowlton have set up practices dedicated to BSE to
help companies prepare for worst-case scenarios. And Fleishman-Hillard
recently staged a BSE crisis drill for the senior management of a
Most of the major industry groups have already introduced guidelines and
crisis plans, including the National Cattleman's Beef Association, which
admits it has a Web site ready to go should the disease hit the US. The
National Nutritional Foods Supplement Industry has developed guidelines
for members to ensure products are BSE free. And last month, the trade
association Dairy Management launched a search for a PR agency to tackle
increased public and media interest in the disease.
'There are always companies in denial that say, 'It will never happen to
me,'' says Len Biegal, principal and head of BSMG's global crisis
'But more and more, I am seeing companies say, 'We need to prepare.'' He
compares mad cow preparation to Y2K preparation. 'Not one company ever
said, 'Why did we waste all that money?''
Detection and decisions
Mad cow disease is complex and puzzling, and it runs a frightening,
gruesome course through the human body. Sponge-like holes develop in the
brain, leading to dementia, loss of motor functions and, ultimately,
One of the problems is that BSE is undetectable in living animals and
humans (although tests are in development). It is thought to be caused
by mutated protein molecules called prions, but no one knows for
And the incubation period could be as long as two years, which casts
more uncertainty on the disease's perimeters.
'We have here a mysterious disease,' says David Bartlett, VP and head of
training at Rowan & Blewitt. 'This is bad for risk communications. Most
of us are fearful of the unknown.'
Puzo says there are a variety of ways mad cow disease could be detected
in the US. It could show up in an animal at a slaughterhouse, in random
product testing or in a human who was exposed in Europe. There is also
the remote possibility of it entering through an act of biological
'All related industries would be thrown into a crisis,' Puzo says. 'The
government would be overwhelmed. And, if all these industries start
demanding lab space, there is going to be deadlock.'
'Basically we would go into a martial law kind of arrangement,' says
Lester Crawford, director of the Georgetown Center for Food and
Nutrition Policy. 'It would be expensive and personnel-intensive. Any
exposed animal herd would be exterminated, then testing of live animals
and people would proceed.'
Communicators caught in the melee would have to be fully conversant on
the science of BSE and the manufacturing process. 'You have to identify
exactly what products are involved, and where potentially contaminated
cows entered the product chain,' explains Joe Gleason, head of Manning,
Selvage & Lee's global corporate practice.
'The company that survives this has to be very well rehearsed, very
smart and very in tune to consumer and media attitudes,' Puzo says.
Paul Hicks, managing director of Ogilvy in New York, recommends
addressing the issue early. 'I'd be talking about it now in order to
inoculate the press against the charge that you were not concerned about
it. But I know a lot of clients aren't comfortable with that.'
Too much information?
There are some things consumers would rather not know. 'It reminds me of
an old saying that two things you never want to see being made are
sausage and legislation,' says Daren Williams, SVP at
'The general public does not want a whole lot of detail about where food
comes from. They just want to know that it's safe, and it tastes
PR efforts should focus on assuring consumers that companies are
meeting, and sometimes exceeding, federal safety guidelines.
But simply spouting statistics about how unlikely it is that BSE could
be contracted in this country is not so reassuring.
'When you're talking about mothers or fathers feeding their children,
it's very difficult to say there is some degree of acceptable risk,'
Williams says. 'Food safety is a zero confidence thing.'
'The assumption is if we just explain the facts, if we just put forward
a credible hypothesis and explain that the likelihood (of contracting
BSE) is small, that'll be fine,' says Bartlett. 'But that isn't the way
human nature works. If people watch 60 Minutes II and see someone really
suffering from the disease, the last thing they're thinking about is
Frank Mankowitz, vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton, agrees. 'I think the
statistics pretty much go by the wayside.' he says. 'It is important to
convey a sense of knowledge. Once cattle have become infected with BSE,
then it is idle to say there is only one chance in 10 million that it
An ounce of prevention
Targeted media relations is crucial, particularly because vegetarian and
animal rights groups may capitalize on the vulnerability of industries
that use bovine-related materials.
'If there are groups fomenting panic, you need to be prepared to respond
to their attacks,' says Gleason. 'Identify the media writing this story
on a regular basis and educate them about what's real and what's
'You have to be surgically adept at communicating,' he continues. 'Make
sure they all have access to qualified experts who can explain the
science and the real risks.'
Bartlett adds that educational efforts must reach the consumer. 'We can
educate every reporter in America, and they will feel perfectly
comfortable about buying a hamburger,' he says. 'But you have to
communicate to the audience that matters - consumers.'
The government may not be much help in bolstering consumer
'A great crisis response entails taking responsibility for what is going
on in a credible fashion,' says Hicks. 'The history of the US government
doing that is not great.'
Sluggish government reaction gives companies the opportunity to
'Government is generally slow to react, but companies cannot let
problems linger,' Hicks says.
Above all, industries must show that they are doing everything possible
to prevent infected products from reaching the public. 'People are quick
to forgive a company committed to doing the right thing,' Williams
'We consistently stress that PR is no substitute for doing the right
INDUSTRIES, PRODUCTS AND DEVICES POTENTIALLY AFFECTED BY MAD COW
FOOD: All beef-related industries are vulnerable to BSE, as well as all
producers of foods derived from cows, such as milk and cheese. Retailers
of these products also could be hurt
VACCINES: Polio and whooping cough vaccines are among those that contain
bovine materials, says Pharmaceutical Research and Manufactures of
PHARMACEUTICALS: PhRMA says about 25% of all prescription and
over-the-counter medications contain gelatin, which is derived from
cattle tissues. Up to 85% of products may contain some bovine materials,
including drugs used to treat AIDS, heart disease, cancer and high blood
NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENTS: Bovine-derived ingredients include tissues such
as liver, spleen and gelatin, according to the Council for Responsible
MEDICAL DEVICES: The FDA reports that gut sutures, heart valve
replacements and dental implants are among the devices that are
sometimes derived from bovine materials. A March report published by the
US Department of Health concludes that operations on the central nervous
system and ophthalmic tissue are the riskiest for possible transmission
of BSE via medical instruments - even after sterilization
COSMETICS: Bovine by-products are used in cosmetics manufacturing. These
include glycerin used to emulsify skin cream and lipstick.