WANHAM, AB: An infected cow in Canada sent communicators into a flurry of action last week as they tried to tamp concerns about the first discovery of mad cow disease in North America in a decade.
Although mad cow disease, or BSE, has yet to be discovered in the US and no parts of the infected bovine made it into the food supply, several restaurant chains and food companies faced serious investor anxiety and consequent stock slides. Outback Steakhouse, Wendy's, and Tyson Foods were among those that issued releases trying to head off concerns.
The US Department of Agriculture made its secretary, Ann M. Veneman, visible on CNN, the Today show, and other programs. She also testified in front of the House of Representatives' agriculture committee and briefed stakeholders.
"The main thing has been the clear and consistent articulation that we see no reason for the American consumer to be concerned about the state of the beef supply," said Ed Loyd, the department's deputy press secretary. "We wanted to act very quickly to give Americans reassurance."
Some companies with a stake in the story lauded the USDA's handling of the matter, in sharp contrast to the recriminations just beginning North of the border in Canada.
"People have done a good job of getting out information," said Joe Kadow, SVP and
general counsel for Outback Steakhouse.
"The key message to share is that we're taking about one cow in a herd in Canada," said Kim Essex, executive director of PR for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "The United States' beef supply is safe. It does not have BSE."
The sense among the PR people handling the story was that the concerns came more from the press and investors than from consumers. Said Kadow of his company's release, "We were responding to questions from the investment community."
When the story broke, Tyson Foods, which has a processing plant in Canada, experienced an immediate dip in its stock price, followed by a next-day recovery.
"There is an early tendency to be alarmist about this," said Ed Nicholson, director of media and community relations for Tyson. His department's role was to communicate with customers and other stakeholders. Internal communications with the company's Alberta plant was handled by local managers.
Contrasting this episode to similar discoveries in Europe, where Tyson's market is much smaller, he said, "[The Alberta situation] is something that needs attention."