USDA's PR Strategy

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This article was first published as "USDA's PR Strategy" in PR Watch, Volume 3, No. 1, First Quarter 1996. It original article was authored by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS):1991 Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Public Relations

The following extracts are from a government PR strategy document for handling the Mad Cow Disease problem in the United State. The document was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act investigation.

With BSE there are two issues where agriculture is vulnerable to media scrutiny. These are the practice of feeding rendered ruminant products to ruminants and the risk to human health.

The mere perception that BSE might exist in the United States could have devastating effects on our domestic markets for beef and dairy products. . . . How the American public and foreign markets respond will depend on their confidence in the U.S. Government and particularly in APHIS. The media will play a tremendous part in conveying this information to the public. Thus, our relations with the media will play a vital role in this issue.

News articles in the British press were analyzed to identify the important issues, and the strategic errors committed by the British. . . This information was used to develop public relations strategies for [APHIS] to deal with the potential or actual occurrence of BSE in the United States . . . to avoid public relations problems such as have occurred in the UK.

[British news a]rticles . . . appeared to be spurred by . . . a register for [discovering the occurrence of] Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). This appeared to legitimize concern about a link between BSE and human health.

After a May 1990 article announcing the death of a cat with BSE-like lesions, 81 additional articles speculated on the relationship between the cat's death and its food, and on possible links to human health. . . . [A]rticles again emphasized methods to minimize human exposure. . . .

The [British Agricultural] Ministry assured the public that there was no danger from eating beef when, in fact, absolute safety can not be proven, and the safety of British beef cannot be demonstrated for 20 or more years. In late June [1990], the Minister admitted that the safety of beef had not been proven.

Because [British] agriculture officials avoided the problem initially, they were perceived to be involved in a cover-up; this damaged their credibility. . . . [BSE] could quickly become an issue in this country. A number of articles already published could potentially create alarm among U.S. consumers. . . . Alternatively, in more objective coverage, a June 26, 1990, Washington Post article quoted Clarence J. Gibbs of the [U.S. government] saying, "I don't think there is any danger in consuming British beef."

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