A Media Slap Down

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

When the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that during routine surveillance it had tested and confirmed the country’s fourth case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Tulare County, CA – an atypical case in a decade-old dairy cow – industry took the announcement in stride. The 2004 Harvard risk model on what the United States could expect, based on regulatory and voluntary industry actions taken to prevent the disease, postulated that the country would likely see a few cases over several years as the beef herd aged and primary BSE candidates died off. Frankly, several industry insiders were a bit surprised the United States hadn’t experienced a couple of similar announcements throughout the decade since “the cow that stole Christmas” in 2003 was discovered.

As to how USDA announced the finding, Dr. John Clifford, USDA’s head veterinarian and deputy administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, dusted off the old department BSE playbook and ran the game by the numbers. Clifford did the requisite briefings for the media and the industry – though it’s always struck this writer as odd the government briefs the press before it briefs the industry directly affected by the announcement – laying out for both audiences in grade school simple fashion the facts of the episode as USDA knew them at the time. If he said it once, he said it six times during the industry briefing: “The meat and milk supplies are safe.”

Clifford did a credible job of reminding both media and industry that atypical BSE is not new in the United States; the second and third discovered cases about six or seven years ago were both atypical. He also reminded his listeners that with an atypical case of BSE, one can be about 99.9 percent sure the animal didn’t contract it from eating contaminated animal by-products, and that while the scientific jury is out on what causes atypical BSE, most believe it’s a spontaneous form of the bovine central nervous system disease.

The reaction of various audiences in Washington, DC, was predictable. Capitol Hill was too engrossed in bipartisan bickering to pay much attention as USDA carefully couched the announcement in a “this-is-no-big-thing” context. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t comment publicly at first, following that unwritten federal rule that one agency does not tread on the turf of another unless invited. So-called consumer protection groups demanded answers to questions, some irrelevant to the situation being discussed, which for a variety of reasons USDA could not or would not answer. Trade media took the USDA press release and what they learned on the department briefing call, made contacts with industry groups and companies intimately involved in the BSE issue for reaction quotes, and filed their stories. This should have been the beginning and end of a 24-hour news cycle.

However, affected industries underestimated the ignorance and/or laziness of the general media when it comes to agriculture issues. Several network “on-air talents” took to the airwaves to instill shock and awe in viewers. The American Broadcasting Company and CBS Broadcasting, Inc. news programs were particularly guilty of either incredibly sloppy reporting or the selective use of fact and speculation to try to make a relatively mundane story into some kind of a headline-grabbing situation. There was a clear attempt – to this writer, at least – to make the Tulare County cow the follow-on story to the lean finely textured beef (LFTB), or “pink slime,” story the networks had such fun with a couple of weeks before.

In one network television report, the word atypical and its definition were never used to describe the status of the ancient Golden State bovine. On another network report, the reporter flat out stated there was a “break in the feed rule,” referring to federal regulations banning the feeding of mammalian tissues to bovine animals. Several on-air interviews with consumer groups used only those sound bites speculating on a breach of the FDA feed rule; several major newspapers simply parroted activist criticism of USDA’s testing program under which Clifford reported about 40,000 animals are tested yearly. The best, most professional story read – objective, balanced, factual, and understandable by the layperson – was in USA Today, written by a reporter who covered the first US BSE case in 2003.

Whether it was industry frustration with the shoddiness of the reporting or the department reaching the end of its rope with amateur hour in the press corps, USDA took the almost-unheard-of step of issuing a federal government media slap down. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s press secretary sent the media – and she released it generally – a polite but firm rebuke in which she took the pressies to task for ignoring the California cow’s atypical status, and for harping on how much testing USDA does. She said this lack of focus “produced an unfortunate amount of misleading reporting” and ignored important components of the US government’s BSE prevention and detection system. She also reissued to the media all information the department had already released. Basically, she told them to shape up.

The general media didn’t report in the first round of stories that USDA testing rates are 10 times greater than World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, recommendations; they ignored FDA’s publicly reported 99-plus percent compliance rate with the federal ban on feeding of mammalian tissue to bovines by the US rendering and feed industries; they ignored the 99 percent reduction in global BSE cases since the height of the European outbreak in the 1990s; and they pretty much ignored the context of US cases – one in a Canadian import, and three atypical cases. Just for grins, a comparison to other industrialized nations would have added some context to these stories, as in Japan has had 36 cases and Canada has had 20.

I won’t alibi for the general media, but I’m guessing most newspaper reporters who covered the 2003 BSE case have moved on to bigger beats. When it comes to television reports, keep in mind the man or woman on the screen rarely does the bulk of the reporting, relying instead on producers who gather information, arrange on-camera interviews, write the questions, write the teleprompter copy, etc. While the big names have experienced producers, the bulk of the production staff are 20- or 30-somethings who likely have never covered anything vaguely related to production agriculture.

The industry is frustrated by this kind of coverage, yet silent about it as well. We need to ensure the media is aware of who we are and what we do, and the best way to do that is to reach out. The media needs handholding, and a big part of that care and feeding is to ensure that when such stories break, they have the resources to get context and facts. If they choose to ignore them, well, at least we’ve done our part.

June 2012 RENDER | back