True to form, the animal-rights nuts at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have wasted no time in taking advantage of Tuesday’s Canadian mad-cow announcement. This morning’s Calgary Herald reports:

An internationally known animal rights group will be distributing “emergency vegetarian starter kits” outside an Edmonton grocery store today after the discovery of mad cow disease in Alberta. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) members will be carrying signs reading “It’s Mad to Eat Meat — Go Vegetarian” and will pass out the kits to shoppers at noon …

“The best way to ensure that you and your family won’t get sick is to go vegetarian,” said [PETA campaign director Bruce] Friedrich. The PETA kits will include information about vegetarianism, recipes, images of “abused” animals and pictures of celebrity vegetarians.

Of course, this kind of shameless exploitation of tragedy is nothing new for PETA. In 2001 the group’s activists donned biohazard suits and passed out the same “emergency” kits to shoppers in Des Moines, Iowa. Back then, PETA’s stated rationale was the fear of (nonexistent) “mad sheep” disease. Their signs read: “Shop as if your life depends on it.”

We’re hoping that Edmonton consumers are too smart to fall for PETA’s grandstanding. After all, the Edmonton Journal quotes one microbiologist saying “the most likely scenario is this is a sporadic case … It’s luck of the draw.” The Edmonton Sun’s lead editorial, meanwhile, advises Albertans that they have “nothing to worry about … there’s basically no chance that any Canadians are going to acquire the variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which can be contracted from eating the brains or spinal tissue of a mad cow.”

And it’s worth remembering what Dr. George Gray, director of the Food Safety and Agriculture Department at Harvard University said years ago: “The risk from what will certainly be a media-fed frenzy of emotional public reaction, should one case appear, is potentially worse than the risk of the disease itself.

What of the Canadians who are unlucky enough to be confronted by sign-wielding animal rights zealots when they reach for their favorite cut of beef? They should tell PETA to “stick a fork in it.”