Creating Cow Concerns Should Make Mad Consumers

<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />U.S. consumers are known for their affection for food, so it's a wonder most Americans are responding so calmly to reports of mad cow disease discovered in a single animal in Washington State.  That's good news, because clear thinking lends itself to better decision-making.  What's not surprising, however, are attempts by activists and special interest groups of all kinds to scare consumers into making irrational choices.

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Ours is a safe, healthy, and prosperous world, and we appropriately put a lot of effort into stamping out threats to our health and well-being.  Unfortunately, we're sometimes misled by groups that create and perpetuate groundless health scares to make a living: ambulance-chasing trial lawyers, anti-technology organizations, and some holistic food companies selling solutions to problems that don't exist.  All these groups have seized on mad cow disease (called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE) as their next opportunity to make a buck.


The typical formula these activists employ is to trump up some bogus health claim, scare consumers into demanding new government rules, and rake in cash by taking advantage of the hysteria they caused.  In this case, radical groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals hope to scare consumers away from meat and promote their vegetarian agenda.  Next are a few unscrupulous organic food advocates, such as the Organic Consumers Association, who want to create a bigger niche for their products by vilifying the conventional food industry.  And a number of trial lawyers have recently been seen trolling for business among people who are “concerned about contracting” the disease.  Their motto: Afraid you might get sick?  Call a lawyer.


What these groups haven't counted on is that the truth is actually being heard and, so far, Americans are responding appropriately.  Although, in the 19 years since BSE was discovered, more than 150 people in Europe and the UK have been diagnosed with the human form of the disease after eating beef products contaminated with central nervous system tissue from infected cattle, not a single person has ever gotten it from eating meat in the United States.  Eating organic isn't necessarily safer either.  In England, the epicenter of the mad cow problem, BSE was found in both conventional and organic herds, so organic marketing claims linked to food safety and health are irresponsible and mislead consumers and farmers alike.


The only known way to prevent the spread of mad cow is by following certain basic animal feeding practices, which are already enforced by US regulations and are standard operating procedure among North American cattle ranchers.  Additional rules issued since the discovery of that one sick cow in Washington make the safest system in the world even safer.


Look closely at this story, and you won't find any good reasons for the kind of radical changes in regulatory policy the activists are demanding.  What you will find is evidence that more regulation is not necessarily better.  Imposing rules that have no basis in science just to make us feel better would, however, be highly costly for consumers and producers—raising food prices, limiting the availability of certain foods, and straining wallets across the country.


European countries failed to take the early and aggressive preventive steps the United States began putting in place in 1989.  As a result, no one, least of all European officials, should have been surprised when a BSE epidemic hit.  However, Europe's hysterical response to the outbreak of mad cow cost taxpayers billions of dollars and resulted in the virtual collapse of the British beef industry.  But the real loss was far more than money.


Because regulators abandoned common sense, consumers lost confidence in the government's ability to protect the food chain, and European producers lost the ability to make science-based decisions.  Authority to protect the European food supply was taken from qualified doctors and scientists and put in the hands of politicians who set rules on the basis of opinion polls and activist group press releases.  It would be a tragic mistake if we were to allow that to happen here.


American consumers enjoy the safest food supply in the world because we understand how science, technology, and competitive regulation can be used to improve our health and well-being.  Before capitulating to broad new regulations that could actually make use worse off, not better, we'd all be wise to ask, “Where's the beef?”