Cowed Media Disease
It's the day after U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the first case of mad cow disease in the United States, the telephones at the Center for Media & Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin are ringing constantly with press inquiries.
"I've never seen anything like this in my 30 years of activism!" John Stauber, executive director of the center and co-author of the 1997 book Mad Cow U.S.A., is saying. Stauber has been warning for years about the threat of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease, coming to America.
And after years of very limited press interest, this is something else. In between taking calls on December 24, he recalls a 1992 conversation with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal--an experience typical of the difficulty he had trying to get media to sound the alarm.
He had begun investigating mad cow disease as an outgrowth of research he was doing on recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), the genetically engineered drug designed to increase a cow's milk production, while at the Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington, D.C. group that examines developments in science and technology and their impacts.
"I got a call from a retired Eli Lilly drug researcher who told me that if rBGH came on the market in the U.S., we would be seeing mad cow disease," recounts Stauber. He didn't see the connection. The scientist explained: "If you inject cows with rBGH, you will have to feed them fat and protein supplements," because rBGH takes a heavy toll as it hikes milk production. Likely to be used, he said, would be "the cheapest form" of fat and protein: slaughterhouse waste. And this waste, the researcher said, would inevitably include parts of animals infected with mad cow disease -- and the disease would be passed on. The use of slaughterhouse waste was how mad cow disease had spread in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe in the 1980s.
Then Stauber filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, obtaining a 1991 report that discussed the pros and cons of banning feed containing slaughterhouse waste: "The advantage of this option is that it minimizes the risk of BSE," it read. "The disadvantage is that the cost to the livestock and rendering industries would be substantial."
Stauber called a Wall Street Journal reporter who specializes in agriculture and told him of all this. The reporter said it was "a theoretical issue. Call me when they find the first cow" with mad cow disease.
Stauber told him: "They'll be calling me when they find the first cow."
"And now they've found the first cow and [are] calling me," he says as the phones ring non-stop at his public interest organization, a non-profit dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry. (The center's website declares: "Whether the issue is health, consumer safety, environmental preservation or democracy and world peace, citizens today find themselves confronted by a bewildering array of hired propagandists paid to convince the public that junk food is nutritious, pollution is harmless, and that what's good for big business and big government is good for the rest of us.")
The Wall Street Journal reporter's stance was representative of the media view on mad cow disease coming to the U.S. that he encountered, says Stauber, even after the publication of Mad Cow U.S.A., with its pages of documentation, much obtained through FOIA, pointing to the disease reaching America -- unless strong steps were taken. The book, co-authored by Sheldon Rampton, editor of the center's PR Watch, was "ignored by the mainstream media."
The attitude, says Stauber, was akin to, "You don't need a yellow light or a red light at the intersection until there is a pile-up and bodies strewn across the intersection."
There were some journalists interested -- indeed, "excited" about the issue, says Stauber -- but he was told that their editors, news directors or executive producers didn't want them to pursue it. An offensive by agribusiness contributed to the inaction. There was the lawsuit following an Oprah Winfrey show in 1996 titled "Dangerous Food" on which ex-rancher Howard Lyman warned of the spread of mad cow disease to the U.S. "Today we could do exactly what the English did and cease feeding cows to cows. Why in the world are we not doing that?" asked Lyman, going on: "Because we have the greedy that are getting the ear of government."
The Texas Beef Group sued Winfrey, Lyman and King World Productions for $2 million, based on a then-new "food disparagement" law in Texas. The case was dismissed, but had a chilling effect. Stauber says a TV network producer later told him his orders were to keep his "network from being sued the way Oprah was."
Meanwhile, the meat industry and the government, notably the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and what Stauber terms "front groups" -- the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and the Center for Consumer Freedom -- were working to convince "the media this was a non-issue."
Also, some new U.S. regulations on feeding cattle slaughterhouse waste were put into effect in 1997, but Stauber describes them as "a farce." Potentially infected blood, fat, bone meal and other parts of dead animals continued to be legally fed to livestock.
There was a continued attempt to mislead reporters and deceive the public, says Stauber. "Rather than watchdogging the issue, the press just passed on the false assurances. The media, dumbed down about this disease, kept the public in the dark."
There was an exception in alternative media: Joel Bleifuss of In These Times did investigative reporting on mad cow disease using material Stauber provided. The journalism by Bleifuss on mad cow disease was cited in 1994 as one of the "most under-reported" stories in the U.S. by Project Censored at Sonoma State University.
Then, on December 23, 2003, came the Veneman announcement.
A torrent of interest
Stauber and Rampton had gone together to see Shattered Glass -- the movie about the New Republic reporter who didn't simply pass on the PR spin but made up stories out of whole cloth -- when they got a phone call from CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight program to comment on the announcement.
Stauber appeared and was very glad to do so, he said, because he was able to promptly rebut the claims by Veneman and industry that the 1997 rules were a "firewall," and the denial that mad cow disease could be passed to people by eating muscle meat. (Nerve tissue, which prions tend to infect, permeates muscles.)
That afternoon and evening, a torrent of other media were calling. "It seemed like a dam broke," says Stauber. He and Rampton were extensively quoted in the New York Times the next morning. The Times article included a 1997 Food and Drug Administration estimate mentioned in their book that forecast that if "a single case" of mad cow disease was found in the U.S. and a "total ban" on slaughterhouse feed was immediately begun, still as many as 299,000 infected cattle could be expected in the following 11 years. That would be due to the latency period of up to 10 years before mad cow disease manifests in animals. The latency period for the human form of the illness, the always-fatal variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is five to 40 years after eating infected meat.
"Listen," CNN anchor Dr. Sanjay Gupta said to Stauber on CNN American Morning, "one of the things that you have said is that this is probably the tip of the iceberg. Don't you think that's a little bit dramatic?"
"No, I don't think it's dramatic at all," replied Stauber. He pointed out that in 1985 in Great Britain, when mad cow disease "first appeared it was in one or two cattle. Five years later, it was in hundreds of thousands." And he cited the FDA estimate. Great Britain "has been to hell and back on this issue" and "overcome it by doing two things -- an absolute and complete ban on feeding slaughterhouse waste to livestock...and testing virtually every animal." But the U.S. meat industry and government "still refuse to accept that."
Solid reporting, at long last, was being done on the subject by some mainstream media -- including after December 30 when Veneman announced additions to the supposedly already-toughened "firewall" of federal rules.
"On the surface, it may look like the USDA is finally waking up. But these new measures are not enough," wrote Arlene Weintraub and Janet Ginsburg in Business Week. Todd Hartman in the Rocky Mountain News reported: "Below the drumbeat of reassurances from government and the cattle industry that mad cow disease poses no threat to public health, a small universe of scientists working on a family of related illnesses are finding disturbing evidence to the contrary."
"Federal agencies have more power to recall defective toys and auto parts than they do tainted beef," Sabin Russell reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.
CBS Evening News broadcast a "Food Chain" segment by Bob McNamara on "what's in the meat that we eat" and the mad cow disease connection, with a stress on how the meat industry had long manipulated government policy.
"Mad Cow Forces Beef Industry to Change Course," was the front-page headline of the New York Times. A team of Times reporters wrote: "In an attempt to rescue the market for American beef, the industry is being forced to accept regulation it has long fought." Nation after nation was banning the import of U.S. meat, signaling an annual loss of many billions of dollars for the meat industry.
Stauber's center offered a free download of Mad Cow U.S.A. at its website: prwatch.org. Between the original Veneman announcement and mid-January 2004, there were 70,000 downloads. (Common Courage Press has just publised a new paperback edition of the book.)
Meanwhile, government and meat industry PR machines and "front groups" were on the move. "Meat-industry trade groups were scurrying during the recent holiday season to coordinate key messages and media lists as they responded to reports of mad cow disease rearing its head in the Western U.S.," stated John N. Frank in PR Week.
The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis criticized the newly hard-hitting coverage. "The coverage of mad cow disease is demonstrating the tendency for reporters and editors to play up the dramatic, the frightening and the controversial aspects of risk stories, and to play down or omit altogether information that puts the risk in perspective," the center's David Ropeik said in an op-ed in the Washington Post. "Why is this front-page news, given that the overwhelming scientific evidence, developed from years of rigorous testing in Britain at the height of the epidemic there, shows that meat is not infectious?"
Ropeik, former reporter and news anchor for WCVB-TV in Boston and a longtime leader of the Society of Environmental Journalists, is the center's director of risk communication, "responsible for," according to its website, "communicating the center's approach of keeping risk in perspective to the press, policy makers and the public."
Ropeik berated media for barely mentioning a study his center did -- with an $800,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, says Stauber -- which "found that if mad cow disease occurred in the American cattle herd, the chance that it would spread to other animals or pose a threat to human health is extraordinarily low." And Ropeik concluded, "Mad cow disease offers a warning to America: We need more balanced journalistic coverage of this, and all risks, in the name of public health."
The Harvard center is "a front group for industry with massive Fortune 500 funding," says Stauber. "They will whitewash corporate issues especially on food safety and pesticides." The center receives funding from such companies and groups as the American Petroleum Institute, American Plastics Council, ARCO, Business Roundtable, Chemical Manufacturers Association, Chlorine Chemistry Council, DuPont, Edison Electric Institute, Exxon-Mobil, General Electric, Monsanto, National Food Processors Association, Texaco, Union Carbide--and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But "it has the wonderful name 'Harvard' in front of it,"says Stauber.
Another "front group" seeking to quell the coverage has been the Center for Consumer Freedom. Set up by the lobbying firm Berman & Co. in Washington in 1995 as the Guest Choice Network with money from the Philip Morris tobacco company, its initial focus was fighting laws restricting smoking in public places. With its name change, it developed a broader mission: campaigning through the media against what it terms "food cops, health care enforcers, anti-meat activists." It now receives substantial funding from the meat and restaurant industries.
The Center has attacked Stauber personally, saying he is involved with the Organic Consumers Assocation in using the Veneman mad cow disease announcement "to drive U.S. shoppers away from the grocery meat counter and toward more expensive organic and so-called 'natural' options" (PR Newswire).
Some media see no threat even now. "What's the Beef?" editorialized Newsday. "There's no reason to let the single case of mad cow disease that has turned up in Washington State change New Yorkers' eating habits. The chances of it bringing affliction down on a consumer here are immeasurably miniscule."
"Candidate Mooing," editorialized the Washington Post, berating Democratic presidential candidates for criticizing the Bush administration "as soft on mad cow disease." (It noted that Sen. John Kerry urged George W. Bush "for once not to listen to the demands of corporate America and act on behalf of the health and economic needs of all Americans.") The Post observed: "There is no particular reason to think that the regulatory systems designed to prevent an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in this country didn't function as intended."
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury, hosts the Enviro Close-Up TV series. This article has been republished with permission from EXTRA!, a publication of the media advocacy group FAIR.