Commentary: Media’s mad reporting skills

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Unlike the sensationalized coverage of BSE — mad cow to every reporter or TV producer alive — back in the day, contemporary reporting is subdued, factual and actually accurate.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that lab tests have confirmed a diagnosis of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), a fatal brain disorder, in a Texas patient who recently died.

Since vCJD is linked to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, I braced myself the usual media overreach about the deadly threat of mad cow striking again. Having worked for and industry trade group in Washington, D.C., during the initial uproar in 2003, when a single dairy cow in Washington state was confirmed with BSE, I was prepared to fire off a column presenting an updated version of the massive file of exculpatory evidence that was assembled by industry scientists 10 years ago.

But the anticipated media outrage never happened.

Is it possible that the nation’s reporters and cable news producers have matured? That as a group, they now understand the big-picture context of BSE incidence data and the extremely low probability that this Texas case represented the proverbial “tip of the iceberg?”

Probably not. Personally, I think it’s more of a case of mad cow fatigue, but whatever the reason, it was truly refreshing to review several relatively balanced stories that — gasp! — actually reported the facts and relied on CDC data, rather than consumer advocate groups’ fear and loathing.

First identified in the late 1990s in Great Britain, variant CJD is a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by consumption of beef products from cows with BSE — “products” meaning blood and nervous system tissue, that is. In other words, a person has to be eating blood sausage or calf brains to consume enough of the infective prions to develop the disease. In fact, it turns out that humans need to be exposed to a significant “dose” of those prions, whereas cows tend to be quite sensitive to even relatively small doses of contaminated feed.

That’s one factoid the media got right.

As rare as it gets

The other is vCJD’s relative rarity. According to CDC, only about 220 cases of vCJD have been reported worldwide, a majority of them from the United Kingdom (177 cases) and France (27 cases), along with several other Western European countries.

That may seem like a lot, but we’re talking a population of more than 300 million people over the course of 20-plus years. That’s a predictive likelihood somewhere in the range of getting killed by a lightning strike. While you’re out on a golf course. On the 18th green. Talking to your broker. About to close a deal.

In the United States, there have been four confirmed cases, but again, they all involved people who had lived and/or traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. It is as near to impossible as one could calculate to develop vCJD from eating U.S. beef.

Perhaps most heartening, the media coverage I scanned actually distinguished between so-called “classic” Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and variant CJD. Classic CJD is — literally — a one-in-a-million disease, and is one of a cluster of rare (and unfortunately fatal) brain disorders, but one that is not linked to BSE.

You’d have never known that from reading BSE news stories from 2004 through about 2010 or so.

But I really don’t care whether that change in reporting is due to the media’s learning curve on what is admittedly a complex scientific explanation — which would imply that the dozens of fact sheets, press releases, phone interviews and media availabilities I and many other industry communicators churned out way back when actually had the desired impact — or whether reporters just can’t be bothered with sensationalizing a story that’s lost its ability to scare the public.

Either way, it’s as positive as a news story about a tragic death can get.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Terry    
Texas  |  June, 10, 2014 at 09:24 AM

fact is, BSE cases in Europe of the past years have dropped dramatically due to feed ban that was enforced, and extensive BSE testing, in large numbers. just the opposite has happened in the USA. it’s all been documented. there is ample evidence that there is as much of a chance (if not more), that this victim contracted human mad cow disease from sources right here in the USA. this PR push to alienate a USA source factor for human BSE in the USA is a PR stunt by the USDA inc., and not justified now, in my opinion. compare BSE testing figures in the EU compared to the USA, compare mad cow feed ban breaches, and you will see. hell, the 2004 enhanced BSE surveillance program was flawed so bad, the top Prion God at the NIH TSE prion expert Paul Brown, says he does not trust anything from the USDA since Texas covered up a mad cow for 7 months, on a 48 hour confirmation turn around. it’s all documented below in link. USDA inc shut down the mad cow testing after so many atypical BSE cases started showing up. yes, another foreigner comes to the USA, or another USA citizens does some traveling, and all of a sudden, it’s a foreign disease. evidently, these folks never eat anything in the USA, and contracts nvcjd. right. Monday, June 02, 2014 Confirmed Human BSE aka mad cow Variant CJD vCJD or nvCJD Case in Texas http://vcjd.blogspot.com/2014/06/confirmed-variant-cjd-case-in-texas.html I lost my mom to the hvCJD, and sporadic cjd has now been linked to atypical BSE, and atypical scrapie, with cwd concerning scientist greatly. the USA BSE surveillance, BSE testing, and the infamous BSE feed ban, what they call the triple BSE firewall, has proven to be a terrible failure. these are the facts as I have com eto know them.


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