Posted: July 2, 2004
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Article SummaryJody Lanard and I had already written a critique (“Misleading toward the Truth: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Mishandles Mad Cow Risk Communication”) of how the U.S. Department of Agriculture handled the discovery of the first known case of mad cow disease in the U.S. So when the USDA did an excellent job a few months later with two inconclusive screening test positives for possible mad cow disease, we felt we ought to write about it. This short column covers the agency’s wise (and courageous) decision to announce the screening test results without waiting for follow-up testing, and to do so with candor about the dilemma of whether to report preliminary findings.

Sharing and Bearing Dilemmas:
The USDA’s Transparent
Mad Cow Risk Communication

In March 2004, we published “Misleading Toward the Truth: The USDA Mishandles Mad Cow Risk Communication,” a critique of how the U.S. Department of Agriculture communicated the discovery of the first known case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in the country.

A few months later, the newly instituted rapid screening test for BSE turned up two possible positives (called “inconclusives”) that needed to be sent for confirmatory testing. This time the USDA did well.

Before and after our “Misleading Toward the Truth” article came out in March 2004, several media sources published our criticisms of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s mad cow risk communication. In April and May, as new instances of alleged malfeasance were revealed, the USDA continued to be criticized by others, and continued to react defensively.

Now, in early summer 2004, many of the same USDA officials have been doing a significantly better job communicating about the first two inconclusive rapid screening test results. As the public and the industry awaited definitive results, the USDA was steadfastly transparent – including being transparent about why it chose not to be transparent about everything. And it managed to show respect for those with differing views – for the Japanese who wanted every cow tested instead of just a sample; for the political leaders who thought preliminary and possibly alarming results shouldn’t be released until they were confirmed; for others within the USDA itself who had differing views about the potential false-positive rate.

A couple of USDA Secretary Ann Veneman’s recent public statements are going right into our “Good Risk Communication Examples” file. For instance, on June 28, Secretary Veneman acknowledged the dilemma of releasing uncertain and worrisome information – in a very human voice – with an implied expectation that the public can bear the uncertainty:

It was even difficult for me to understand initially why we would release results when we didn’t know the results.… But the fact of the matter is when you’re testing and holding, the risk of market rumors is probably more damaging to the industry than is telling people what’s going on. [Farm Journal Media]

Despite the transparent interim announcement, inevitably there were rumors anyway, including rumors of leaks. That’s human nature in action. But the rumors were greatly mitigated by the USDA’s official statements about the inconclusive tests. Just imagine how much more impact the same rumors would have had if the USDA had stayed silent.

Also notable was Secretary Veneman’s empathic validation of Japan’s skittishness about our beef:

Japan’s 100% testing stems from that government’s lack of openness after BSE was first discovered there on Sept. 10, 2001, she [Veneman] said. “Their consumers lost confidence in the food supply and therefore the consumption went down. They are clearly in a different position than we are, where our consumers have well-founded confidence in our regulatory systems and the safety of our food supply.” []

This statement may overstate a bit the difference between the nervous Japanese consumer and the confident American consumer, and it is perhaps a little heavy on the self-praise. Still, it is a big improvement for the USDA to recognize that Japan’s preference for 100% testing is grounded in that country’s historical experience, and not in “bad science.”

On June 30, Veneman even told Reuters News Service that she is “hopeful we’ll see some progress with the Japanese soon.” The 2003 USDA would usually have said it was “confident.” “Hopeful” is a much better risk communication word.

The USDA’s new policy of announcing incomplete results, openly saying what it is not telling the public (the cow’s location, for example), and explaining why, is excellent risk communication. Better still was the USDA’s effort to explain it all about ten days before the first inconclusive result appeared, instead of trying to play catch-up afterwards. We call this “being transparent about what you are not going to be transparent about.”

Every possible combination of telling and not telling has costs: raising some anxiety and generating some anger. We can think of no possible algorithm that leads to zero anxiety and anger. The path the USDA has chosen is closer to optimal than most of the other choices – better than trying to keep the inconclusive tests secret until they were confirmed, better than stigmatizing certain herds and slaughterhouses by releasing the specifics of unconfirmed test results. (As with all communication plans, this one should be evaluated along the way and revised as needed based on how well it is working.)

USDA spokespeople could usefully acknowledge their dilemma even more strongly. They could state explicitly that every decision to reveal or not reveal specific information makes some people angrier or more anxious, even as it makes others more confident and more trusting – and that deciding what to say is thus a difficult and frustrating thing to do. They could even add that they are bearing the frustration of their dilemma, and that they believe the public will be able to bear the frustration of its uncertainty.

It is always hard to prove our contention that better risk communication leads to more responsible criticism and more balanced media coverage. But sometimes we get a strong hint.

Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns expressed respectful disagreement with the USDA’s policy of announcing inconclusive results. His nuanced criticism appeared in the July 1 Southwest Nebraska News under an unusually balanced headline: “Gov. Johanns Applauds BSE Testing; Questions Release of Inconclusive.” Both Johanns’s comments and the media’s handling of them strike us as much less polarized than usual – thoughtful discussion and disagreement between interested stakeholders, rather than ranting and raving between enraged opponents. We believe the USDA’s respectful candor earned that reaction.

In communicating to the public, agencies often try to “speak with one voice” – to reach a consensus (even an uneasy one) if they possibly can, and fake it if they can’t by hiding or denying the internal disagreement. The strategy often backfires. Either the disagreement leaks out, or the forced consensus proves mistaken, or disagreement elsewhere makes the organization look like it hasn’t considered the full range of opinions. The USDA avoided this tempting pitfall. It respectfully acknowledged internal debate about whether to release the news about the inconclusives, preventing reporters from blowing the matter up into a tempest-in-a-teapot controversy. When asked about the decision process at a July 1 media telebriefing, Deputy Administrator John Clifford of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service didn’t pretend the decision to announce the inconclusives had been easy or unanimous. Instead he readily responded, “Yes. There’s a lot of discussion around that.”

A reporter also asked Dr. Clifford why he refused to estimate a likely rate of false positives for the rapid screening tests, especially since Under Secretary of Agriculture J.B. Penn had publicly predicted that roughly one in 10,000 rapid screening tests would show up as inconclusive (that is, a positive finding needing confirmatory testing to see if it’s false or real).

Dr. Clifford acknowledged that the one-in-10,000 estimate had been stated publicly, and added:

[T]hat particular number is referring to the Japanese and what they had found…. [T]he Japanese are testing a different class of animals than what we’re testing, and we could see results that differ from what they’re seeing. That’s why we didn’t want to put a specific statistical number out there. [July 1 USDA telebriefing]

The next day’s news articles reported this matter-of-factly.

And we experienced a wave of delight when we read a July 1 Associated Press article headlined “Agriculture Dept vows to be open with mad cow test results.” Here’s the article’s lead paragraph:

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department is defending its decision to release results of preliminary tests that raise concern about a possible mad cow disease infection when the initial findings may well be wrong.

When you are accused of being defensive about being too transparent, you are probably doing something right. It may feel to some USDA officials and communicators that whatever they do, they can’t win. Take-home message from us:  This is what winning looks like in risk communication.

Bottom line: The USDA’s risk communication progress is real, and it is welcome.

Copyright © 2004 by Jody Lanard and Peter M. Sandman

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