Better science writing would put health scares in perspective.
Come July Fourth, millions of Americans will toss burgers on the grill without a second thought. It was different 14 years ago. Remember “mad-cow disease” — the health crisis that never happened?
Shortly before Independence Day 2004, the U.S. Agriculture Department announced — James Comey-like — the discovery of two “inconclusive” cases of mad-cow disease. You can imagine what that did to hamburger sales.
The alarm turned out to be false. But that wasn’t revealed until August.
Eating certain parts of a “mad cow” could lead to a deadly brain disease in humans. But not a single person has reportedly died eating from an American cow infected with the disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Nonetheless, news of a handful of cases abroad gripped the American public with fear.
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The same could not be said about romaine lettuce. At least five people died this year from romaine tainted with E. coli bacteria. With the suspect lettuce — grown in Yuma, Arizona — now out of the food supply, the crisis is being forgotten. By the way, how many recall the spinach E. coli outbreak of 2006, tied to at least three deaths?
It’s a safe bet that there will be no four-page color exposes in national magazines about leafy vegetable safety as there were about the imagined threat of mad cows roaming the heartland. Never mind that cows afflicted with BSE were largely a foreign problem.
Europeans put the parts of the cow that caused trouble in humans, the brain and spinal cord, into their meat pies. Americans generally eat only the muscle. In addition, the U.S. beef supply was better regulated.
Not that this got into the reportage. The reason for this unequal treatment of animal and vegetable had to do with politics, vegetarian activism and a century-old hangover from “The Jungle,” the 1906 muckraking novel that exposed shocking unsanitary practices in the meat industry from long ago.
U.S. ranchers couldn’t get a break. Vegetarians beseeched Americans to save themselves by forgoing animal products. “Well, we are finally getting sick and even dying from eating those animals,” read a letter in The New York Times in 2000. Odd that just a few months earlier, 17 people had been hospitalized from eating bean sprouts infected with salmonella.
Politicians from non-beef-producing parts of the country piled on. Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles called the government’s response to mad cow “more public relations than public health.” Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut demanded a “major overhaul” of a meat inspection system that had already been tightened in response.
Truth is, the cattle industry had no incentive to weaken the inspection laws. In December 2003, when the first cow to test positive for mad-cow disease in the U.S. was found in Washington state (and it came from Canada), sales of American beef products cratered here and abroad. As one Nebraska rancher told me, that was “the cow that stole Christmas.”
Fourteen years from now, few will remember the romaine concerns of 2018. But the staying power of mad cow hysteria could be seen in The Daily Beast’s decision to run a recent update on that non-crisis. The reporting was solid, but the subhead showed that meat is never quite off the hook. “It’s not likely to hit the U.S. — but it could happen,” the line read.
A giant meteor could happen to downtown Chicago. And who knows what new surprises the Kilauea volcano has in store for Hawaii’s Big Island?
Better science writing would put health scares in perspective. Meanwhile, whether you prefer hamburger or veggie burger this Fourth, feel free to dig in. Even the salad is unlikely to hurt you.