While Luddite intellectual guru Jeremy Rifkin has stayed on the sidelines of the recent mad-cow debate, three of his former employees — Ronnie Cummins, John Stauber, and Howard Lyman — have taken the lead in fanning the flames of panic. This trio of scaremongers has a long-standing, Rifkin-inspired “beef” with beef. For them, the discovery of a single case of mad cow disease was simply an opportunity to score PR victories on behalf of their anti-corporate, anti-technology, and animal-rights ideology.

Along with his disciples, Rifkin seeks to impose his fringe politics on the dinner plate. He argues that “eating is the ultimate political act” — taste, value and food safety be damned.

Rifkin’s campaign against steak and hamburgers began in 1992 with his book, Beyond Beef. He described beef as a “new form of human evil” and a “malevolent force in the world.” He falsely blamed it for everything from hunger to global warming to spousal abuse, and even claimed that “a person is committing an evil act by growing feed for cattle or consuming a hamburger.”

The Houston Chronicle’s reviewer saw through Rifkin’s polemic:

Rifkin’s beef is not really with cattle at all but with capitalism. He fully admits he has chosen beef cattle for his attack because they are the historic symbol of wealth and portable capital. In the America Rifkin envisions, beef cattle and capitalism are banished, the buffalo roam, the deer and the antelope play and Americans eat peas and corn bread in poverty but in solidarity with their Third World brothers.

It gets even wackier. In Beyond Beef, Rifkin wrote that forgoing prime rib is “a revolutionary act” heralding “a new chapter in the unfolding of human consciousness.” And that’s exactly what Rifkin and his disciples want — to change human consciousness. Attacking beef is simply a proxy for this much grander goal, and hyping mad-cow fears is merely a proxy for attacking beef.

Rifkin scoffs at the strides humanity has made, preferring the distant past to our present levels of relative wealth and security. “Progress is only for that small, little group … who have reaped the benefits at the expense of our fellows,” he argues. “Modernity has brought only hunger and disease and an increasing sense of hopelessness and despair.” As an alternative, Rifkin promotes a “post-modern view of science,” based on “empathy with the environment.”

These beliefs echo the philosophy of Deep Ecology, which holds that human beings are no more important than flora and fauna. No wonder, then, that the biggest donor to Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends (FOET) is the Foundation for Deep Ecology — which financed the “Second Luddite Congress” in 1996.

The radical anti-corporate, eco-religious philosophy espoused by Rifkin and the Foundation for Deep Ecology is precisely what drives Cummins, Stauber, and Lyman to reach new heights of hyperbole in their descriptions of mad-cow dangers.

Ronnie Cummins was employed by Rifkin’s FOET from 1992 to 1998. There he worked on the “Beyond Beef” campaign and the “Pure Food” campaign, which was subsequently spun off as the Organic Consumers Association, with Cummins as its national director. This group, dedicated as it is to attacking modern farming techniques, recently declared that “ thousands of Americans may already be dying because of mad cow disease.”

John Stauber worked for FOET from 1988 to 1993, when he went on to found the religiously anti-corporate Center for Media & Democracy. In 1997, with financial support of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, Stauber wrote Mad Cow U.S.A. Rifkin endorsed this work with the words: “It can happen here!” Stauber just so happens to sit on the national advisory board of the Organic Consumers Association, and, like Ronnie Cummins, has become a near-ubiquitous media presence in mad-cow-related stories. Just minutes after Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman finished her press conference announcing the discovery of a single sick cow, Stauber told CNN — without any evidence whatsoever — that it was just “the tip of an invisible iceberg” and that “mad cow disease is spread throughout North America.”

Howard Lyman was executive director of Jeremy Rifkin’s “Beyond Beef Campaign” before achieving genuine infamy when he claimed on the “Oprah” TV show in 1996 that mad cow disease would make AIDS “look like the common cold.” After a single infected cow was discovered in the state of Washington, Lyman — a cattle rancher turned animal-rights evangelist — began presenting his doom-and-gloom predictions as visionary.

The behavior of Cummins, Stauber, and Lyman is reminiscent of Rifkin, whose Beyond Beef called the cow disease Bovine Immunodeficiency Virus “Cow AIDS” for shock value. Rifkin wrote: “The economic impact of BIV on the beef and dairy industries is likely to be devastating in the years to come.” A column in The Washington Times angrily dismissed this idea as “Mr. Rifkin’s mendacious exploitation of AIDS and cancer hysteria.”

The following comments about Rifkin could easily be applied today to the mad-cow-related actions of Cummins, Stauber, and Lyman:

“Rifkin’s arguments have been called dangerously simple-minded and sometimes downright specious. He has been accused, in effect, of demagoguery, of targeting the emotions at the expense of the mind. His intellectual honesty has been challenged.” (The Washington Post, January 17, 1988)

“The problem is that Rifkin frequently presents his case in such a shrill and occasionally unscrupulous manner that in the debates he hopes to encourage, fear and anger frequently replace information and reasoned judgment.” (TIME magazine, December 4, 1989)

“[Rifkin has turned] the art of delivering horrendously inaccurate predictions into a cottage industry. Each year the predicted catastrophes fail to occur, and each year the next round of horrible predictions is eagerly embraced by an environmental press desperate to produce startling stories with enticing headlines.” (The American Spectator, April 1993)