- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2001

On the cusp of releasing the definitive report on the threat of mad cow disease in the United States, George Gray, director for food safety and agriculture for the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, said, "The risk that mad cow disease could happen in the U.S.A. is low, and the risk that it could spread as it did in Europe is lower still."

About the potential for public panic over the issue, however, Mr. Gray is less reassuring. "The risk," he said, "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."

The good doctor's warning is justified. Radio talk shows are crackling with testimonials from people who swear they know someone who has died from "mad cow" disease here in the United States. Even the Associated Press recently reported "Mad Cow-Like Disease Kills Two."

Of course, none of it is true; not one American has died from mad cow disease. These unfortunate deaths are, to the person, cases of sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), an incurable brain-wasting disorder that strikes about one person in a million. But that fact isn't deterring a group of practiced media manipulators who would have us believe we are all in imminent danger of contracting mad cow disease. The mastermind behind this growing "media-fed frenzy" is Fenton Communications, the PR company that has stage-managed the relentless attack on genetically improved foods, the infamous Alar-on-apples panic in the late 80s and the recent "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign (despite scientists suggesting there was more heat than light in their press releases).

Thanks to the PR work of Fenton Communications, "60 Minutes" told viewers that the commonly used chemical Alar is "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply." The media frenzy that followed was unprecedented. After the hype was dismissed as virtually fraudulent, David Fenton boasted in an internal memo published in the Wall Street Journal that "the campaign was designed so that revenue would flow back to NRDC (his client) from the public."

Now, they are at it again. According to the Fenton-run Environmental Media Services (EMS), an "epidemic" of mad cow-like disease is ravaging western deer and elk. This disease, they suggest, "may already be claiming human lives as is suggested by the alarming appearance of unusually young victims of CJD."

EMS built its claim on the deaths of two men who died from CJD at an unusually young age. Because both men were avid hunters and relatively young CJD victims, the media bought the unsubstantiated story that infected deer was responsible for their deaths. Even conclusive reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could not stop the nation's leading newspapers and television news programs from reporting a link between "mad deer" disease and human CJD.

EMS buttressed their story by providing the media with four "expert contacts," two of whom just happen to be nationally known anti-meat activists. Among them are John Stauber, a notorious anti-technology activist and author of "Mad Cow U.S.A." and Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the pro-organic group Center for Food Safety, whose self-described mission is to "educate the public on the hazards of industrial agriculture." Also involved is Thomas Pringle, who has been described by the media as a vegan, environmental activist. Hardly the objective "experts" one would expect.

These "experts" are working with other activists, including Ronnie Cummins, the head of the Organic Consumers Association and D'Arcy Kemnitz, a former lobbyist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, (even jointly filing lawsuits) to perpetuate the myth that mad cow disease may already be killing Americans.

The reasons for the scare campaign are as diverse as the groups manufacturing it. Some activists, like Mr. Stauber, want to create a consumer backlash against the high-technology companies involved with U.S. meat production. Others, like Mr. Kemnitz, simply want to frighten people away from meat consumption to advance their animal-rights agenda.

But it was Ronnie Cummins who was most candid about the political goals of his organization, the Organic Consumers Association. In his newsletter, BioDemocracy, Mr. Cummins recently wrote," Commentators have noted for years that the mad cow crisis in Europe has been a significant factor fueling opposition to genetically engineered foods … Now a similar crisis of confidence may start to develop in the United States as well."

The "experts" behind the American mad cow scare campaign have bristled publicly at the suggestion that they were anything but impartial concerned citizens. Mr. Pringle, host of a mad cow web site that acts as a kind of clearinghouse for mad cow information, both fact-based and manufactured, repeatedly claimed to be simply an impartial researcher. Last week, however, he handed over the reigns of his popular web site to Michael Greger, a self-described "radical activist" who promotes a strict vegan lifestyle.

But it is probably the titles of his research papers and public presentations that best describe his point of view. Among them: " Much More Serious Than AIDS," "Milk … Help Yourself (to cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis?)," and "Paratuberculosis Bacteria In Milk: The Next National Food Scare."

If there ever is a real mad cow panic in America, as Mr. Gray fears, it will not be borne of cloven-hoofed animals. It will be brought to you by the loony and oftentimes dangerous Luddite activists.

Richard Berman is the Executive Director of Guest Choice Network, a coalition of restaurant and tavern operators.

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