Mad cow disease rotting holes in the brains of cattle and possibly the people who feast on their flesh. Tuna filled with mercury, and salmon laced with PCBs. Chickens stricken with avian flu infecting humans.
A bombardment of scary food news over the past few months comes as Americans are already dealing with war, terrorism, orange alerts and other 21st century malaises.
It’s enough to induce crippling anxieties in the most stoic among us.
Even if, deep down inside, we know better.
Many experts insist the risk of contracting the human form of mad cow disease is so remote it hardly merits attention, let alone altered eating habits. Others say the health benefits of salmon easily outweigh any risks from PCBs.
So why are these things so scary?
Largely because human beings rarely size up danger based solely on a cool calculation of risk, say experts.
“The perception of risk is often less based simply on facts than it is on intuition and instinct,” said David Ropeik, from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.
With mad cow disease, a frightening alchemy of certain death and mystery elevate the illness beyond an assessment of relative risk. In response to its appearance in a Holstein near Yakima nearly two months ago, many concerned meat eaters are quizzing butchers, choosing organic and tracing their prime rib’s pedigree – all to trim down the chance of encountering the deadly disease on their dinner plates.
Many other food-borne illnesses are more likely to kill. An average of 5,000 Americans die every year from E. coli, salmonella, hepatitis A and other bugs in their food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2003, more than 250 cases of salmonella and E. coli were reported in King County.
By contrast, about 150 cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of mad cow disease scientists believe is contracted by eating infected beef, have been diagnosed in Europe since 1996. Only one case has been detected in the United States – a Florida woman who spent much of her life in England.
Just the facts
But statistical likelihood isn’t the only consideration. A checklist of characteristics including uncertainty, novelty, dread, outrage and lack of control, best predict levels of public fear and anxiety, according to risk perception experts.
The Washington, D.C., sniper, for example, terrorized residents even though the chances of becoming a target were small. “People realized their car was likelier to be in a fatal accident, but they were still more frightened of the sniper,” said Peter Sandman, a New Jersey-based risk communications consultant. “That’s all about outrage.”
When the threat descends from outside our realm of control – a foreign country, a seemingly unknowable industrial process or a scientific anomaly – we consider the risk greater than a danger we impose on ourselves, such as bungee jumping or eating high-fat foods.
A particularly grisly death can also heighten concern, say experts.
Mad cow disease, part of a class of ailments known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, eats away holes in the brains of stricken people and animals, causing a deterioration of motor skills and mental function until the dying person is reduced to a vegetative state.
Anyone watching or reading the news has also heard gruesome details about what cows eat, how they’re slaughtered and ultimately, what people could be ingesting.
“We’re probably hard-wired to be repelled by both the idea of rotten meat and the idea of our brain rotting,” Sandman said.
Sometimes relying on emotion to guide choices can be dangerous, said Ropeik, from Harvard. After Sept. 11, fearful of another terrorist attack, more Americans purchased hand guns. Instead of offering security, experts say owning a gun increases the chance of someone in the house being shot. Others appease their fear of flying by opting to drive – a far more lethal form of transportation.
“That sense of control may feel good, but statistically, it actually increases your risk of injury and death,” Ropeik said.
Doing a Gummer
Risk communications experts invoke the name John Gummer as a cautionary tale. In the early days of England’s mad cow outbreak, the British official famously fed his 4-year-old daughter a hamburger on national television.
“Among risk communications people, ‘Doing a Gummer,’ is a phrase,” Sandman said.
Government officials can’t afford to ignore the public’s fears, regardless of the scientific estimate of jeopardy, said Matias Valenzuela, a spokesman for Public Health – Seattle & King County.
“If people have a perception of risk we have to work with that and still get the public health message across,” Valenzuela said.
That’s also true for health risks not yet on the public’s radar, Valenzuela said. “With something like the avian flu at this point it’s important for people to realize there’s a very small risk here locally,” he said. “We’re working very hard to make sure providers know they should be aware of the symptoms.”
The U.S. government “got lucky” with mad cow disease, said Sandman, who believes officials inflated concerns – at least initially – by refusing to acknowledge any risk of eating beef.
The Agriculture Department “made it worse by overstating how good a job they were doing protecting us,” Sandman said. “They made it worse by being almost contemptuous of people who were nervous.”
Ropeik disagrees. Officials soothed consumers with a speedy investigation into the cow’s country of origin (determined to be Canada) and new regulations to further reduce the possible transmission among cows and to humans, Ropeik said.
By taking steps beyond what the scientific risk indicated, the government did acknowledge fear, he said. “I would suggest the government responded openly, quickly and aggressively doing things they had resisted doing for years. They re-established public trust.”
Copyright © 2004 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer