Originally created 01/12/04

U.S. consumers shrug off mad cow scare



CHICAGO -- It will take more than a single Holstein with mad cow disease to keep consumers like Ralph Flores from eating their beloved beef.

"It would take a major epidemic," Flores said as he bought beef sausage at Paulina Market, a North Side butcher shop where beef sales never faltered until a blast of winter weather hit the city this week.

More than two weeks since the emergence of the first case of mad cow in this country, prompting a widespread ban on U.S. beef overseas, the beef industry's worst fears have not been realized. There's been no evidence the disease has spread, and Americans have stood steadfast to their steaks.

"You can't stop living," said Karl Wagoner as he polished off a burger recently in Trenton, N.J.

Burger chains report no impact on sales and investors have returned to beef-related stocks after an initial selloff, even sending McDonald's higher than it was before the mad cow news broke Dec. 23.

Consumer confidence in U.S. beef remains high and statistically unchanged from September, according to a survey conducted Dec. 29-30 by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Eighty-nine percent of the 1,001 non-vegetarian adults interviewed in person and by phone said they were confident U.S. beef was safe from mad cow disease and 75 percent said they were eating as much beef as a month earlier - the largest percentages in the seven years the tracking survey has been taken. The margin of error of the poll was plus or minus 3 percent.

So where's the beef panic?

Industry observers and crisis management experts say the alarming news of Dec. 23 hasn't developed into a full-blown scare because consumers quickly understood that the individual risk to humans remained remote.

Beef also benefited from strong public esteem, which public-relations executive Richard Laermer puts just a step below apple pie on the U.S. food chain.

"Americans and hamburgers - that's a serious, serious relationship," said Laermer, head of RLM Public Relations Inc. in New York and Los Angeles. "People are not going to give up hamburgers as easily as they'd give up, say, Perrier or Tylenol."

The same goes for hot dogs, another beef icon.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a threat because scientists say humans can develop a brain-wasting illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from consuming beef products contaminated with BSE. But even that link has been challenged, and experts say the risk to individual consumers is minuscule regardless.

While 153 people worldwide have contracted that illness, most in Britain, it has never been diagnosed in an American - a fact that apparently has helped ease consumers' initial concerns.

Jonathan Bernstein, editor of the newsletter Crisis Management International and head of Bernstein Crisis Management of Los Angeles, thinks the government's complicated initial explanation of mad cow contributed to an early scare.

"I think there was a little bit of public panic at first, in terms of 'I don't think I'm going to eat beef for a few days until I figure this out,"' he said. "Ultimately, the message got through to the general public that there's an extremely small chance of the average consumer being affected - at least at this point."

Consultant Larry Smith suggests the timing of the crisis, amid other distractions, also has helped soften the impact. The fact it occurred during the holidays and at about the same time the government raised the nation's terror threat level to orange both lessened the potential for panic, he said, as did the media's "fairly straightforward" reporting to date.

"There haven't been those World War II kind of banner headlines that would cause people's blood pressures to rise," said Smith, head of a Louisville, Ky.-based communications consulting firm, the Institute for Crisis Management. And with terrorism, SARS and other threats, he said, "Maybe we don't panic quite as much as we used to about things because there are so many other things to panic about."

A whole new attitude is possible if the "lone cow theory" doesn't hold up, as Laermer puts it.

"We're sitting on something that's going to explode as soon as they turn up Cow No. 2," he said. "It's really easy right now to say, 'Look at this, it came from Canada, it's their problem and not ours.' But two cows - it will be a crisis. I'm not sure Americans will stop eating beef, but as Art Buchwald said, KFC will be dancing in the streets."

Jerry Lekan, co-owner of Paulina Market, is similarly cautious even though his 55-year-old shop continues to sell 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of beef a week.

"We don't see discouragement in beef," he said. "People knowing it came from Canada was a big ease to their minds.

"But it's early. It'll all depend on the outcome of this situation."

On the Net:

National Cattlemen's Beef Association: http://www.beef.org