Fears about “mad deer” disease made the front page of The Wall Street Journal last week, combining the concerns of hunters and their families with the rhetoric of professional scaremongers to brew up paranoia. The fears are the result of propaganda, not serious science. It’s just the latest in the “mad cow” scare campaign.
Calling the chronic wasting disease that has impacted some deer “frighteningly similar to mad-cow disease,” the Journal plays into the hands of the anti-technology, anti-meat, and pro-organic food movements. Hard-core activists like John Stauber, and those at the misleadingly named Center for Food Safety, are now being quoted alongside serious researchers with such frequency that average Americans can scarcely tell the difference.
The public deserves to be advised that not all sources are equally believable. With no evidence, Stauber has claimed since 1997 that mad cow is already present in U.S. cattle. Likewise, the Center for Food Safety is made up of organic food activists (and for-profit marketers) who want to scare consumers out of buying beef. Their overall strategy, now several years old, anticipates that Americans will make the psychological leap from “mad deer” to “mad cow” — and that they will flock to pricier organic alternatives.
The head of the Organic Consumers Association, who bluntly claims mad cow is already present in the U.S., says he hopes a “crisis of confidence may start to develop in the United States” over mad cow fears, leading to a “new era of sustainable living and organic agriculture.” And D’Arcy Kemnitz, formerly of PETA, has worked with the mad cow scare campaign to try to trick people out of eating meat.
But not one American has died from mad cow disease. Activists have exploited the tragic deaths of two young men from sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), an incurable brain-wasting disorder that strikes about one person in a million. CJD has similarities to mad cow, but is not the same thing. But because both men were avid hunters and relatively young CJD victims, the media bought the unsubstantiated story that infected deer was responsible for their deaths. The governmental Centers for Disease Control concluded that the deaths were not mad deer-related.
In April, Nobel Prize winner Stanley Prusiner released a study asserting that “those who eat the meat of deer infected with chronic wasting disease are in no danger.” While a reasonable person would guess this would silence Stauber and company, it has not.
Instead, they are keeping up their PR disinformation campaign, and rather cynically hoping disease will come. As Dr. George Gray, director of the food safety and agriculture department at Harvard University, has warned: “The risk from what will certainly be a media-fed frenzy of emotional public reaction, should one case appear, is potentially worse than the risk of the disease itself.”