While news coverage of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has been extensive in recent weeks, Americans remain confident in the safety of the beef supply. In June, USDA announced the second U.S. case of the disease had been confirmed, in a sample from an animal that first tested negative in November 2004. Earlier this week, USDA announced that a nondefinitive test had been conducted on a cow at least 12 years of age.

Despite the potential for an adverse reaction to news coverage of these incidents, consumers seem to understand that with firewalls and safeguards in place, BSE does not pose a threat to food safety, or to human or animal health.

A consumer tracking survey conducted June 27-29 found that recent news coverage of BSE has not affected consumer confidence that U.S. beef is safe from BSE. The independently conducted telephone survey of 927 adults found that 92 percent of American consumers are confident that U.S. beef is safe from mad cow disease, a commonly used name for BSE. The level of confidence in U.S. beef safety has remained strong (averaging 91 percent) since the first U.S. case of BSE was announced in December 2003.

The continued high level of confidence in beef safety came despite a significant increase in the percentage of consumers who had heard something about mad cow disease in the past month. A survey conducted in May found 64 percent of consumers recently had heard something about mad cow disease. But in the June survey, that number had risen to 81 percent, due to extensive media coverage of USDA’s announcement of the new case.

The latest survey was funded by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and managed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which serves as one of the Beef Board’s contractors for checkoff-funded programs. It was conducted by the marketing research firm Ipsos, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent.

Consumers appear to understand the BSE firewalls that have been put in place for many years, and they believe the government is doing a good job of protecting both consumers and the U.S. cattle herd from BSE. With regard to USDA, 89 percent of consumers say it is doing a good job of protecting U.S. cattle from getting mad cow disease, while 90 percent say it is doing a good job of protecting the public from exposure to mad cow disease.

These results take on even greater significance because of the long history of checkoff-funded efforts to monitor consumer attitudes and behavior related to BSE, according to Al Svajgr, Nebraska cattle producer and chairman of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.

“The beef industry has always known that it is extremely important to keep our finger on the pulse of the American consumer,” Svajgr said. “But it is especially critical that we understand consumer attitudes and concerns related to BSE. Having tracked this information for many years, the Beef Checkoff Program has substantial, established data that measures consumer concerns and helps the industry to address them effectively and accurately.”

Svajgr added that while the beef industry doesn’t want consumers to dwell on BSE, it is important to make as much information available to them as possible.

“Beef producers are in this business not only for a lifetime, but often for many generations. So it is extremely important to communicate fully and honestly with our consumers,” he said. “That’s the only way to establish trust and consumer loyalty.”

Checkoff-funded efforts, including a portion of the website www.bseinfo.org, allow consumers to have ready access to extensive, detailed information on BSE at their fingertips. Providing accurate information on BSE to media, as well as to the processing, retail and foodservice sectors of the beef industry, are also important methods of communicating with consumers.

“There’s more than just promotion involved in building demand for beef,” said Svajgr. “Educating consumers and understanding their concerns are also essential, and beef producers can be very pleased with the results achieved through their checkoff investment. If this resource had not been available to the beef industry when BSE became an issue overseas, I just can’t believe we would have been able to nurture such a positive, constructive relationship with our consumers.”

NCBA