MAD COW DISEASE NOW STALKS THE NORTH COUNTRY

Aren't you glad you're reading the headline above this column in a trade publication, not a consumer publication, especially since it's not true?Not only is the disease being held at bay in North America, but there's a seeming absence of outcry concerning the discovery of Canada's first case of mad cow disease in a human. And that prompts the real question in this issue: Why haven't we felt more fear

Aren't you glad you're reading the headline above this column in a trade publication, not a consumer publication, especially since it's not true?

Not only is the disease being held at bay in North America, but there's a seeming absence of outcry concerning the discovery of Canada's first case of mad cow disease in a human. And that prompts the real question in this issue: Why haven't we felt more fear from the general public concerning mad cow and other food-related contretemps lately? Let's look.

There is a rational enough reason why the discovery of mad cow disease in Canada shouldn't occasion much concern. As you'll see by reading the news article on Page 23, the preponderance of evidence is that the person who contracted the disease had spent considerable time in Great Britain. (This situation was also briefly described in SN's Aug. 12 issue.)

The Canadian case mirrors a situation that occurred earlier this year when a person living in Florida, but who had lived most of her life in Britain, succumbed to the malady. In both instances, then, the connection to Britain is strong. It's acknowledged there had been a problem with mad cow in Britain. There's no reason to think mad cow has breached the ramparts and is likely to swarm into North America.

Nonetheless, the situation did provide a harbinger of what could happen if there were an outbreak of mad cow here: Equity values of restaurant chains heavily dependent on beef menus slumped. It's not difficult to see what would happen to the entire production industry, along with retailing venues such as supermarkets, should mad cow really surface.

Luckily, steps have been taken to keep mad cow out of this country, which should keep the worst from happening.

But back to the curiosity of the muted response from the public about mad cow, along with other notorious- beef situations such as last month's huge recall of ConAgra Beef products owing to E. coli contamination and, earlier, to the "Dateline NBC" broadcast concerning some supermarkets' practice of changing "sell-by dates" on fresh meat and seafood.

None of these events has sparked much of a pushback against the nation's food supply in general, or meat products in particular. That's probably because consumers swim in a sea of conflicting informational clutter about consumables, chiefly food and medicine. In that sea, the panacea of one moment later turns out to be fraught with danger, or the reverse. Seemingly, consumers have thrown up their hands and now presume that all such information is suspect, or, if not, that there's not much to do about it in any event.

In a sense, that's probably good news for the industry since alarms will have to sound long and loud before any change in consumption patterns will result. On the other hand, it's good to keep in mind food product that isn't cared for properly in the distribution or retail process, or at home, or that isn't properly prepared, can pose a real danger.

There's clearly an obligation to make sure danger is reduced or eliminated.