MAD COW MANIA: In Europe, BSE is the boogeyman. But as the mediaspeculate about its arrival in the US, perceptions must now be managedhere. Julia Hood reports

'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

beef-processor client.

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

statistical probability.'

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

can occur.'

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



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

America (PhRMA)

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.

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