James N. Klapthor

The story broke like a tsunami. Abandoning partially completed stories until later, waves of journalists scrambled to learn the latest information on bovine spongiform encephalopathy after it was discovered in May that a lone head of cattle on an Alberta, Canada, ranch succumbed to mad cow disease. It was the first confirmed case of BSE in North America since the brain-wasting disease ravaged the European continent, and word of the discovery spread like wildfire among news media.

In Chicago, the Institute of Food Technologists issued an advisory for journalists moments after word of the discovery was announced. Offering IFT Food Science Communicator experts on the BSE topic, the dispatch was directed to the largest and most influential news outlets. Communicator Dean Cliver, University of California at Davis, received the calls that ensued.

It started with National Public Radio, which produced a segment of its May 21 Morning Edition program addressing mad cow disease. Cliver told the program and its national listening audience, “From the scientific standpoint, best available knowledge is that a cow is not going to infect another cow [with BSE].” He also detailed the next best step for researchers to take to ensure no other cattle were suspect. “If the Canadian government is prepared to follow through on this, what they’re going to have to do is take the brain stems out of all those dead animals and do diagnoses on them, as well to see whether any of the others actually was an incubating case,” he said. With a mix of news and analysis, Morning Edition is heard on more than 600 radio stations across the United States, and around the globe on NPR Worldwide.

The next day, the international news agency Reuters published Cliver’s scientific opinion on the assumption that the disease was passed down by a European cow. In the article, “Theories abound for mad cow disease in Canada,” Cliver said, “The best indications are it’s never happened.” Responding to questions regarding wasting disease jumping species, Cliver noted that some British scientists question whether different animals could transmit BSE to one another, possibly by eating another animal’s placenta. Acknowledged as the world’s largest international news agency, Reuters publishes news in 26 different languages in 150 countries and has 500,000 subscribers, including 900 online news outlets.

Also May 22, USA Today, the nation’s leading national daily newspaper with a circulation over 2 million, ran the article, “Americans can grill worry-free, experts say.” It included this observation by Cliver: “The people in the United Kingdom, who’ve had years to do research on this, have never found BSE in muscle [tissue].” Cliver elaborated for readers who may have wanted to know which cuts of beef are muscle, identifying chops, roasts, steaks, and kabobs. More important, Cliver downplayed fears of contracting the brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. “When you consider the number of foodborne diseases in the United States from all causes, this looms small,” he said.

Leaving no room for argument, the article’s closing comment featured a very general statement by Cliver that another influential news outlet found attractive: “It’s not going to kill us all,” he said. U.S. News & World Report republished that opinion on June 2 in its regular sidebar, “In Quotes.” USNWR boasts 2.2 million readers weekly.

Reuters returned to Cliver for perspective in a May 30 article, “Cow carcasses pile up in Canada mad cow scare,” where he addressed the heat of composting as incapable of killing prions, considered the cause of BSE. Cliver said bacteria in compost heaps may disable these abnormal proteins but more study is needed.

Whether Cliver’s interviews with these news sources helped to create more interviews with other outlets remains to be seen. But the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald was among the newspapers that provided Cliver’s food safety background at the onset of this BSE scare, and on June 5 the paper published an article addressing dietary supplements that use cattle brains, eyes, and glands. The article, “Pills may spread risk,” and Cliver’s comments contained therein left little doubt that these pills contain more risk than benefit. “Direct ingestion of the [cow] brain [by humans] is infinitely more risky than feeding it to cattle,” said Cliver, noting that the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture has banned feeding brains to cattle. He said these supplements have no benefits. “It all sounds like witchcraft to me,” he said. “Eye of newt, and all that.” As Nebraska’s most widely read daily newspaper, the World-Herald has a circulation of more than 220,000.

Media Relations Manager

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  1. Food Safety and Defense