When it comes to food safety concerns, a product is only as safe as consumers believe it to be. The same can be said for disease concerns.
The recent slaughter of a flock of quarantined sheep in Vermont has made front-page news in newspapers nationwide. Why? Because it speaks to consumers’ fears about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. In reality, these sheep were quarantined for scrapies, a condition similar to BSE. The animals also may have been exposed to BSE-contaminated feed. Tests won’t be final for at least two years. USDA seized the sheep as a precautionary measure to prevent BSE from infecting the U.S. meat supply– a point that may have been lost on many readers.
The foot-and-mouth outbreak in Europe creates similar public image problems. While anyone associated with agriculture knows that FMD cannot be transmitted to humans, and USDA is taking precautions to prevent foreign animal diseases from striking here, the general public may not be aware of such facts.
Fear sells, and the national mainstream media will lead with the most shocking and sensational parts of a story. Even if the text later explains that the U.S. meat supply will be safe, it may be buried in the story, rather than in the headline or lead.
Between BSE and FMD headlines, U.S. consumers have heard more about animal diseases during the past few months than they have in their entire lives. Groups associated with the meat industry and agricultural public relations officials will work to get the true facts about these diseases out to the public. But too often perception is consumers’ reality and they remain skeptical to the facts.
You can help by becoming well informed and sharing your knowledge with friends, neighbors and others you hear discussing the topic. To protect domestic meat demand and growing export markets, it’s worth your effort.