Mad Cow Fiction, Stranger Than Truth

If you’re among the millions of Americans whose summer plans include a sandy beach and a wild work of fiction, we recommend taking along mad-cow disease selections from New Scientist magazine, The New York Times, or the Great Falls Tribune. Or perhaps your tastes run more toward on-line articles from PETA, the Organic Consumers Association, or the immodestly self-named Dairy Education Board. Any way you slice it, there are plenty of imaginary tales being told about “mad cow” this month, mostly by self-promoting organic food activists, animal-rights lunatics, and assorted other professional scaremongers.

The scoundrels in these stories are slightly harder to identify than your typical literary villain because they masquerade as media “experts.” But once you know their names, their lies become easier to spot. Allow us to help:

John Stauber — runs the radical Center for Media & Democracy, and has been claiming since 1997 (without any proof) that mad cow disease runs rampant among U.S. beef cattle. His chosen “hook” is the unproven claim that American elk and deer are mad-cow conduits between animals and people. Stauber reacted to the recent Canadian mad-cow situation by referring to a single, isolated case as “our North American outbreak,” and by claiming (again, with no evidence) that “the disease is inevitable” in the United States.

Michael Greger — a vegetarian activist doctor who runs the mad-cow scare website of the Organic Consumers Association, and is fond of speaking at animal-rights events, “living wage” protests, and anti-globalist rallies. He recently provided PETA with a laughable treatise suggesting that the SARS outbreak came from intensive livestock farming. A few weeks ago, Greger told a trio of Gannett News Service reporters: “We can’t say we don’t have mad cow” in the United States.

Mark Ritchie — scaremonger-in-chief at the anti-corporate, anti-free-trade Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minnesota. In addition to mustering the troops whenever opportunities for food-scare activism arise, Ritchie is an accomplished media flack. He told the Associated Press last month that the Canadian mad-cow situation would soon involve “multiple farms and multiple countries,” ominously adding that “it is disingenuous to say this is about one isolated cow.” We’re not holding our breadth for Ritchie to retract these statements — even though no other infected cow has been found.

Howard Lyman — one part animal-rights scold, one part revival tent preacher [click here for audio]. Lyman trades on the fact that he was brought up in a cattle-ranching family to imply that his strict vegetarianism is somehow more informed than everyone else’s dietary choices. Lyman famously (and incorrectly) predicted on the “Oprah” show that mad cow disease would “make AIDS look like the common cold.” He told the Great Falls (MT) Tribune last month that the Canadian mad-cow case is “just the tip of the iceberg.” And in a recent Internet polemic, Lyman described Canada’s lone case as a “war” that will only be ended when we “fill our cemeteries.”

Michael Hansen — a self-proclaimed “expert” on genetically enhanced food, bovine growth hormone, mad cow disease, and any other food issue he deems ripe for scaremongering. Inexplicably, Hansen’s blatant activism and string of misrepresentations (he has claimed that mad cow disease is often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s) has not endangered his job with Consumer Reports magazine. Since the Canadian mad-cow story broke, that food safety concerns should dictate that we start eating only grass-fed, “organic,” and other specialty beef, as if that would make any difference.

Ronnie Cummins – a Ralph Nader disciple who runs a social pressure group called the Organic Consumers Association. Cummins has openly hoped that a U.S. mad-cow epidemic — and the resulting “crisis of confidence” in American food — will lead to a “new era of sustainable living” and a nationwide “transition to organic farming,” similar to the one British consumers saw in the late 1990s. He told a Canadian Press reporter last week that “no case of mad cow has ever been found in a cow raised on an organic farm.” This, actually, is not true. Germany’s very first case of mad cow disease was diagnosed in a slaughterhouse that only processed organic beef cattle. And Cummins should know this: his website redistributes the Wall Street Journal article that first told the story.

Robert Cohen — an animal-rights radical who is convinced that cow’s milk is the root of all evil. While he hasn’t yet penetrated the mainstream media with his doom-and-gloom mad-cow message, Cohen’s thousands of daily website visitors recently read his unfounded conclusion that “Mad Cow Disease is now here in America.” A few weeks ago, Cohen claimed that dairy foods made from Canadian milk were “a ticking time bomb.”

These seven scaremongers are responsible for almost all of the hyperbole, misrepresentation, and make-believe stories you hear about mad cow disease. They are dedicated to making Americans needlessly afraid of their food — all for the sake of an animal-rights, organic-agriculture, or anti-trade agenda. This is nothing new. In 2000, the Center for Consumer Freedom released a report called “Mad Cow: A New American Scare Campaign.” Canada’s recent misfortune has only served to re-energize the same activists who were behind the unwarranted media frenzy in 2000.

Their rhetoric is poisonous, reckless, and — thankfully — without basis in fact.

Health officials and opinion leaders are starting to understand that we have the means to stop mad cow disease in its tracks. International epidemiological experts are praising Canada’s response to what has turned out to be a single, isolated case. And Canadian consumers are responding by eating more domestic beef, not less.

Here in the U.S., red-flag alerts in Wyoming and Montana have turned out to be false alarms. Overall, doom-and-gloom messages about mad cow disease show (as one columnist put it) “the folly of excessive precaution.” Put plainly, the risk of mad cow infecting U.S. herds is infinitesimally small. And, as human diseases go, writes Maclean’s (Canada’s most-read newsweekly), mad cow pales in comparison to serious public-health threats like AIDS, malaria, and even the West Nile virus.

Not that such common sense will stop social activists from churning out their fiction. The situation north of the border is just the latest chapter in a tiresome novel with sequels aplenty. It’s time the American public (and our news media) learns to close the book.

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