Mooving On From Mad-Cow Panic

Like most food scares before it (remember Alar?), mad-cow fear seems to be slowly dying out. Last month a widely run Canadian Press story reported on the lack of public panic after the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE — that is, mad cow) in another Canadian cow. We last reported on this (non-)phenomenon in March, when an American mad cow discovery merited front-page attention on only one out of six major newspapers.

Why so little hoopla? It seems like the public is finally catching on to the concept of risk, including the fact that the size of a threat is modified by its likelihood. So what’s the threat? Last week Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told reporters that “the prevalence of BSE in the United States is less than one case per 1 million adult cattle.” As The Vancouver Sun said of Canada’s recent discovery:

[T]he world has become more mature in its attitude toward the disease, and for good reason. After all, while we can’t entirely eradicate all diseases in cows, we do know how to prevent the beef from those cows from going to market.

With infinitesimal risks made even tinier by safeguards much more advanced than when the disease was discovered a decade ago, mad cow is finally reaching its proper place in the public consciousness. Activists with a variety of agendas are still trying to inflate the threat (both Reuters and the Canadian Press used Michael Hansen to provide the obligatory “scare quote” in the articles referred to above), but the public seems to have realized that the risk is mostly nonexistent.

We’re still in the frenzy stage with bird flu (be sure to check out next Sunday’s hysterical TV movie on the subject), but the science suggests it’ll end up like mad cow. Once the public understands how over-hyped the problem is, activists will have to find something else to scare us about.

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