March could have been a train wreck for cattle producers. With the New York media hyping fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (sensationally called Mad Cow Disease) and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), demand for beef in America was poised to take a stock market-like fall. The only missing ingredient for such a disaster was one confirmed American-based contamination of the food supply.

Fortunately, it didn’t happen, but luck played no role. In fact, preparation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and your National Cattlemen’s Beef Association helped prevent what could have become a disaster for your business. With safeguards firmly in place for years, USDA was quick to reassure consumers that American beef remains safe and wholesome. And NCBA played a significant role with its Crisis Response Plan, providing information and education to members of the media and consumers. NCBA chief executive officer Chuck Schroeder was particularly effective on-camera, answering tough questions with a knowledgeable, yet smooth, confident style.

And there were times (such as a segment on ABC’s 20/20 about BSE) when Mr. Schroeder was thrust into the lion’s den with a crafty, seasoned investigative reporter searching for any hint that our beef supply might be tainted. Extremely well prepared, Mr. Schroeder’s performances were outstanding.

Unfortunately, the media hype over BSE and FMD won’t fade quickly. The story line is just too good, and the recipe is simple: start with a generous portion of video featuring staggering cows followed by burning windrows of cattle, sheep and hogs (all from England, of course). For emotion, add a dash of video showing a mother weeping over the painful death of her child from CJD. Knead the whole thing into a 15-minute feature and play it on a news magazine show during prime time. Expect ratings to increase (unless the program is slotted against Survivor, Temptation Island or some other network concoction seemingly designed to prove that television is, indeed, a vast wasteland).

It’s important, however, to recognize the tragedy of BSE and FMD. The UK has destroyed more than 300,000 animals, and a U.S. ban on European imports will affect over $500 million in goods. Many European farmers will suffer economic and psychological damage as a result of the outbreaks, and certainly the horrific deaths attributed to CJD are tragedies no family should suffer.

The disease outbreaks also will have a lasting impact in the United States. For instance, McDonald’s now requires its hamburger suppliers to certify that their beef comes from cattle not fed meat and bone meal. IBP, ConAgra and Excel were able to comply with the new requirements, while other packers and processors handling cow beef were facing obstacles.

Despite assurances that America’s beef is safe, it’s clear that beef production has forever been changed. Larger operations such as feedyards may limit access to their facilities, and feed companies will be forced to provide additional security for their products. These new efforts to provide additional safeguards against BSE and FMD will soon place a greater burden on you and your business. In the future you may be required to provide documentation regarding feeding and health programs, and you may be required to provide new biosecurity measures for your ranch or feedlot. It’ll add to your costs, of course, but consumers may demand it. For this you can thank the New York media and their efforts to sensationalize a food safety issue for the sake of ratings.