Yesterday’s announcement that a single animal in Canada had tested positive for mad cow disease (technically, “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy,” or BSE) was handled with a surprisingly level head by most agriculture officials and news media. The nation’s food-scare activists, however, are gearing up for
yet another long campaign of misinformation,
aimed at convincing Americans to fear their food.

First, the good news. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was quick to assure Americans yesterday that “no case of BSE has ever been found in the U.S., despite years of intensive testing for the disease.” The United States has already halted beef imports from Canada. And North of the border, Canada’s Food Inspection Agency promised “immediate action … to safeguard Canadian consumers and the Canadian livestock population.” That agency has already begun to quarantine Alberta farms in order to isolate the source of the disease.

It’s important to stress that this is one cow,” Canadian Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief told reporters. Dr. Will Hueston, a world-renowned University of Minnesota mad-cow expert, concurs. “I don’t see it as a great cause for worry,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. And Minnesota’s chief epidemiologist quipped: “If I were scheduled to have hamburger tonight, I wouldn’t be worried about it … clearly, the risk overall is low.” The University of Toronto’s Dr. Neil Cashman calls the risk “infinitesimal.”

We’ve been telling you about the ridiculously low human-health risk for years. Despite earlier, breathless predictions of over 200,000 eventual mad-cow deaths, the total number of human cases worldwide is barely 130 (since the disease emerged in 1995), and the numbers are declining each year. Even if you make beef a regular part of your diet, the risk of dying a mad-cow death is miniscule — even when compared to bee stings, lightning strikes, or dog bites. Every mad-cow death is a tragedy, but they are rare enough to justify only a tiny level of concern.

Perhaps the only real threat here is to the U.S. economy. Share prices of restaurants and other meat-oriented businesses slid yesterday, in what the Reuters news wire called an “economic shock wave.

This, of course, is music to the ears of radicals like those at the radical Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), whose leaders gleefully mobilized activists with doom-and-gloom Wall Street messages. Predictably, IATP’s news release blames the Canadian mad-cow case on the North American Free Trade Agreement, calls for renewed attention to the activist-friendly “Precautionary Principle,” and warns that an ensuing beef crisis will eventually “cover multiple farms and multiple countries.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has weighed in as well, calling for increased regulations on the way ground beef is processed. Long-time anti-milk activist Robert Cohen wrote a column yesterday urging Americans to avoid all dairy foods, calling Canadian milk “a ticking time bomb.”

Even the Consumers Union (CU) of the United States, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, is getting into the act. CU’s Michael Hansen, who only days ago was busy lecturing anti-biotech activists on the supposed health hazards of genetically enhanced foods, told USA Today that the U.S. must immediately adopt Europe’s system of mad-cow testing.

Despite his radical credentials, Hansen figures to be quoted in a wide range of media stories in the coming weeks. Because of those credentials, he is a fixture on the mad-cow “experts” list distributed by Environmental Media Services — a list that also includes scaremongers like Mad Cow USA author John Stauber (of the Center for Media & Democracy) and Joseph Mendelson (of the misnamed and organic-marketer-bankrolled Center for Food Safety). One only wonders why the animal rights movement, with its long history of anti-meat scare campaigns, was left off the list.

No doubt these activist leaders — and many others — will be on the offensive in short order, warning Americans (as Stauber has in the past) that eating beef in the U.S. is “very dangerous.” Nonsense. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said this morning that the mad-cow situation in his country was limited to “one animal in one herd.”

Unless America’s anti-beef, anti-corporate, anti-trade, and organic-only activists can prove otherwise, they ought to sit on the sidelines and exercise some restraint. But don’t count on it.