Wall-to-Wall Mad Cow Coverage
Mad cow disease isn’t everywhere, it only seems that way with ubiquitous and obligatory news reports appearing from sea to shining sea since it was confirmed December 23 that a single cow from Washington state tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Like BSE coverage, IFT’s food science communicator Dean O. Cliver, University of California at Davis, has also seemingly been everywhere with his comments and insight on the positive test and the risk—or more appropriately, the safety—that U.S. consumers are exposed to by eating beef.

Cliver’s comments began appearing in major national news media on Christmas Eve, as Newsday—a Tribune Co. newspaper—published Cliver’s opinion in an extensive article that was republished in Tribune’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “On the basis of what we saw in Canada [the site of BSE-infected cow in 2003], the biggest impact will be economic and political,” Cliver said. “I don’t think there’s any risk to humans.” Newsday circulates 577,000 papers daily around the New York metropolitan area, while the Sun-Sentinel accounts for 240,000 in south Florida.

On the same day, the San Francisco Chronicle announced the first case of U.S. mad cow disease and utilized Cliver’s knowledge, not only as a BSE expert but even more attractively as an expert with local ties. In the Chronicle’s front-page story addressing the economic pressures the beef industry will face should it be forced to implement heightened testing methods, Cliver said, “This will cost a fortune. . . . It is one reason why European beef costs nearly twice as much as that in the United States.” Cliver closed by saying, “Inevitably, if the food industry is to stay in business, it will have to pass those costs on to the consumer.” Owned by the Hearst media corporation, the San Francisco Chronicle daily circulation is 525,000.

Mad cow coverage that included Cliver took a brief break over Christmas Day but resumed in earnest on December 26, with an article in the Christian Science Monitor and broadcasts on NBC’s Nightly News and National Public Radio’s Science Friday, among others. CSM appeared to be among the first news outlets to publish consideration that increasing BSE testing to Japan’s levels may be less about consumer safety and more about economic survival. “We might find it expedient to do that,” said Cliver, “But I don’t think this is about saving lives.” In support of his assessment, Cliver told NPR listeners that Japan has gone overboard with its testing program. “Japan is the only country that’s testing all slaughtered cattle, including veal calves,” he said. “There’s no way that they’re going to get a positive test with animals under two years of age.” On Nightly News, Cliver predicted that domestic testing would be more orderly. “I think we’re going to see a hundred percent testing of slaughter animals above a certain age.” NBC Nightly News is the highest-rated television news broadcast among the Big Three television networks. NPR is aired on 146 stations nationwide, and the Christian Science Monitor circulates on weekdays more than 70,000 papers nationally.

While a final determination on the breadth of Cliver’s scientific views on this case of mad cow disease cannot be made yet, the reach of his comments to date has been extensive. The Knight Ridder and Tribune Co. news wire has distributed articles that include Cliver commentary to news outlets nationwide. Other news sources, including NBC’s Today Show, New York Times, Denver Post, and the Tribune’s rival Chicago Sun-Times, have published original content that includes Cliver’s views as recently as January. And in case you missed it, the January issue of Food Technology carried Cliver’s Back Page article on mad cow disease, entitled “How Now, Mad Cow?”

Cliver’s colleague at UC-Davis, Christine Bruhn, also fielded reporters’ queries as demand for scientific perspective on BSE rose. She was quoted by The Washington Post, Sacramento Bee, Oakland Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and others.

Overlooked slightly amid the stir over mad cow disease, but a hot topic nonetheless, was an academic study funded by the Pew Charitable Trust condemning farmed-raised salmon as a source of environmental contaminants. Charles Santerre, Purdue University, provided substantive response to the charges as published in Science, the Arizona Republic, Toronto Globe and Mail, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and others. Santerre stressed that the report also shows that contaminants in farmed-raised salmon are well below action limit standards set for safety by the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization, and that farmed-raised salmon is a healthy food available year-round and affordable even to low-income families. (See p. 100 for his Back Page article on the topic.)

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