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USDA Tries to Calm Mad Cow Concerns

USDA Tries to Calm Mad Cow Concerns

WASHINGTON — After the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “mad cow” disease in a dairy cow in central California last week, the agency quickly moved to distribute information to calm consumer fears on its website and through social media.

“NEWS: Chief Vet Ofcr John Clifford on BSE detection in US; Animal never presented fr processing, no risk to food supply,” USDA wrote on Twitter, linking to an official statement by USDA chief veterinary officer John Clifford. In few characters, the USDA post was able to confirm the mad cow case and emphasize the food supply was not at risk.

Clifford’s official statement noted that the case was discovered through USDA’s targeted surveillance program, that the dairy cow wasn’t intended for slaughter for human consumption, and that milk cannot transmit mad cow disease.

“The United States has had longstanding interlocking safeguards to protect human and animal health against BSE,” Clifford said in the statement, highlighting the safeguards in place to prevent mad cow disease, such as banning downer cows and high-risk animal parts or “specific risk materials” from the food chain, and the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on including animal products in eed to animals.

USDA also immediately posted a short video on YouTube, also linked from Twitter, of Clifford outlining the case and answering prepared questions.

After the initial announcement last week, USDA’s Twitter feed continued to distribute mad cow disease information, including linking to a statement by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the USDA’s mad cow disease information page, and a follow-up blog post from Clifford.

While there has been consumer commentary, the mad cow disease case has not yet generated the volume of consumer social media outrage that the “pink slime” controversy has, perhaps due in part to the quick, direct communication from the USDA.

The meat industry has also joined in on using social media to try to assuage any consumer fears about eating beef after the mad cow confirmation.

“Fact: BSE is NOT contagious and NOT transferred through milk or beef. Learn more at #madcow #BSE,” the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association wrote on Twitter last week, linking to a NCBA informational page.

The American Meat Institute, which led a very active campaign defending the use of lean finely textured beef referred to as “pink slime,” also used Twitter to pass on information from the USDA and AMI’s own informational page about mad cow disease, as well as link to AMI’s statement on the case and highlight facts the group found significant.

“Important note about today’s BSE case. The animal never entered the food supply. Evidence the system is working. #bseinfo #madcow,” AMI wrote.

See more examples in the Storify component below.

BSE Background

BSE is caused by misshapen protein particles called prions, which can survive cooking and sterilization techniques. Consuming beef from a cow that was infected with BSE will cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, a progressive brain-wasting illness that is incurable and invariably fatal.

A severe outbreak of BSE struck the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s, leading to the infection and death of more than 150 people. More than 4.4 million cattle were ultimately destroyed in an effort to eradicate the disease.

Confirmed reports of BSE in U.S. herds have been extremely rare. The first known U.S. case was reported in late 2003, in a cow that was born in Canada. A fully domestic case was reported in Texas in 2005, and a third case was reported in 2006. During this period, the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed an enhanced testing program to assess the prevalence of the disease, and placed several new restrictions on the beef industry, such as prohibiting the slaughter of “downer” cattle and prohibiting the use of animal byproducts in feed given to cows.

Despite heavy coverage by the consumer media, concern was always relatively muted among shoppers, according to retailers that SN spoke with for various stories in 2001 through 2006.

The advent of social media in the years since could potentially cause a different public reaction. This case could also cause ripples in import and export markets. Several countries placed lengthy, multi-year bans on imports of beef from the U.S. and Canada in 2003 and 2004.

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