First, the bad news: For mad-cow alarmists, the New Year brings opportunities to exaggerate a single sick farm animal into gains for animal-rights groups, organic-food zealots, and anti-capitalist extremists. The good news is that we’re staying on top of mad-cow hysteria and activist hype, calling “shenanigans” on the professional fearmongers who are cynically trying to capitalize on an unfortunate agricultural incident. Read on for the latest about how assorted food activists are stoking the fires of mad-cow fear.

The front page of this morning’s Washington Post “Style” section features a profile of vegetarian activist Howard Lyman. Through a bit of journalistic sleight-of-hand, the Post manipulated Lyman’s 1996 claim (on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show) that mad cow disease “will make AIDS look like the common cold.” Post reporter Reilly Capps substituted “could” for “will,” making Lyman’s comment sound more like thoughtful conjecture than the panic-inducing hype he intended. Here are the facts: In Great Britain, AIDS out-infects mad cow disease by more than 300 to 1. The 2002 human-infection numbers look like this: 5,542 AIDS cases, versus just 17 for mad-cow. And we have yet to see a single human case contracted here in the U.S.

Today’s New York Times features a gushing article about the animal rights group Farm Sanctuary. The Times praises the group for its years-long crusade against the processing of “downer” cows, but manages to overlook its early association with the domestic-terrorist Animal Liberation Front.

Frequently quoted mad-cow “expert” Michael Greger has released an unabashed animal-rights polemic on the subject, writing: “Although no pigs or chickens have been found with the disease … any animal with a brain has the potential to become infected.” Greger has yet to produce any evidence to support this claim, largely because there isn’t any. Neither hogs nor hens (nor fish, for that matter) suffer from mad-cow-like illnesses. And there’s no proof that the sheep- and deer-related diseases (known as Scrapie and Chronic Wasting Disease) have ever been transmitted to human beings.

Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), an animal rights-oriented “natural” meat certifier, is trying to capitalize on mad-cow fears by claiming that so-called “humane” beef suggests “an added assurance of quality.” HFAC’s main financial contributor is the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which has a long-standing interest in attacking conventional meat producers.

The Green Party USA is using the mad-cow situation to agitate for a variety of radical measures, including permanent bans on synthetic dairy hormones and genetically modified feed crops. Predictably, the Greens can’t get their science straight: their statement repeatedly (perhaps intentionally) confuses “classic” Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease with its beef-related “variant.” In the statement, Green Party leader Mitchel Cohen also claims wildly that pesticides are partially to blame for mad cow disease cases in humans.