I’m more mad than alarmed, but the object of my anger might surprise you. I’m not ticked off at the cattlemen who produce American beef, the grocers who sell it, the restaurants that serve it, or even the government agencies that have done yeoman’s work in keeping our level of exposure to a tiny fraction of Europe’s. I’m not irritated by any of them.

What alarms me — and what should alarm most Americans — is the cabal of opportunists who are exploiting the situation in order to promote their political agendas.

These scaremongers include organic-food activists who just don’t like modern agriculture, animal-rights extremists who see a vegetarian revolution where most of us just see a single sick cow, and even some real-life socialists who live to dance on the graves of American businesses.

During the Christmas season, it was hard to open a newspaper without reading assurances from Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, that organic beef provided a safety net from mad cow disease. But he seems to have forgotten that in 1995, the British had hundreds of mad-cow diagnoses on organic farms.

Then there’s John Stauber, the author of Mad Cow U.S.A. Stauber was so eager to demonize U.S. beef producers that he appeared on CNN just moments after the USDA’s first mad-cow announcement, claiming this was just “the tip of a very large iceberg.” Nonsense. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis now says that the risk to consumers is “as close to zero as you can get.” Yet in December, Stauber got more press than Santa Claus.

And let’s not forget the animal rights movement. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is holding protests in front of restaurants and grocery stores, hinting that this is meat-eaters’ deserved comeuppance, and suggesting that “going vegetarian” is the only way to survive the great Beef Holocaust of 2004. This is propaganda, pure and simple.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the mad-cow risk for Americans is microscopically small: about 1 chance for infection in every 10 billion servings of beef. Those are multistate lottery odds. And the discovery of one sick Holstein in Washington doesn’t change that.

Americans should definitely change their habits in a post-mad-cow America, and I’m not talking about whether we eat beef. We should all take a closer look at the activists who promote needless fear for political purposes. Examine the science that contradicts their outrageous claims. Question their credentials. And then go back to enjoying the safest food supply in the history of mankind. The problem isn’t the beef. It’s the scaremongers. And I’m mad.