Now that USDA is substantially expanding its surveillance program for BSE, the department should tell the public that it expects to find more cases, says Peter Sandman, a well-known consultant in the risk communication world.
Sandman, who was one of the keynote speakers at the recent Food Safety Summit in Washington, D.C., told Food Chemical News that USDA must “say explicitly and sadly that we are not a BSE-free country and near as we can tell it will take decades to be that way,” he said. USDA should also say that we have avoided the kinds of problems they had in the United Kingdom, but we have not been able to prevent zero cases, Sandman said. At the same time, the public should be told that “we have in place enough precautions that we are confident we’re not going to have a health crisis.”
Sandman said that not only does USDA need to get the public ready for a second case of mad cow, but it needs to prepare us for the possibility of a homegrown case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob (vCJD) disease. “Lord knows vCJD will not be a public health catastrophe,” he said. “The real thing at stake is [the ability] to nurse us through a real crisis, which this isn’t. They want to be the agency we can trust, and they’re not setting that up at all.”
In announcing USDA’s expanded surveillance program at a briefing on March 15, USDA chief veterinarian Ron DeHaven said the following: “We believe the prevalence of BSE in this country based on the more than decade of sampling that’s been done already, that the prevalence if it exists at all is extremely low. Nevertheless, there is, and I think we need to recognize, that there is a chance that we could find more positive cattle. I think it’s critically important that we keep it in perspective. The steps we have already taken assume that there is the potential for infected cows in the U.S., and these measures provide the necessary safeguards for the protection of our public.”
But Sandman indicated that the point was probably lost among the information presented at the technical briefing, and that “practically nobody knows that USDA is expecting to find more.”
Sandman, who has helped corporations, activists and government agencies (EPA, CDC, NRC, among them) through a wide range of public controversies, has been critical of the USDA’s handling of the BSE case. While there wasn’t public hysteria or a plunge in beef consumption, Sandman says that’s probably because the department got lucky, not because it handled it well.
Secondhand inquiries were made to Sandman as to whether he would consult with USDA during the situation, but they were not followed through, he said.
In any event, Sandman doesn’t believe that USDA lied, but that “it just allowed misimpressions to proliferate.” It’s what Sandman calls “misleading towards the truth,” a very common mistake which includes being overly reassuring and de-emphasizing certain facts.
Sandman has written an extensive article on USDA and its handling of the BSE case. The new article, which details nine instances of USDA’s “misleading towards the truth,” (e.g. “USDA encouraged us to think that no nerve tissue gets into beef”) can be found on Sandman’s Web site at: www.psandman.com.
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