Most likely it's the heat. Both last summer and this have been marked by a flareup of publicity about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.
Last July, the BSE matter concerned the rollout of a new testing regimen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At that time, we learned, USDA intended to test a much larger number of animals in an effort to better quantify the prevalence of the disease.
It was thought the increased testing of cattle could have two opposing results -- either to greatly increase the number of announcements about BSE findings, undermining public confidence in meat, or to reassure the public that the situation was under control. Also at that time, USDA announced that two animals thought to have tested positive for the disease were actually disease-free.
This month, something of a repeat of the false-positive situation developed. As was reported in the two preceding issues of SN, USDA identified a cow that might have been harboring BSE, but after subsequent testing of a sample in this country and in Great Britain, it was declared another false alarm. Well, better false alarms than to learn that a true BSE positive occurred.
More important in the larger scheme, though, is that because a year has passed since the start of the ramped up testing agenda, it's possible to assess its effect on the shopping public. In the main, the response to the occasional report of a BSE finding has been quite muted, even from activists.
As was reported in last week's SN, a scientist at Consumers Union objected to the USDA's testing program. He claimed that little information is available about where the testing program is taking place, how it is being carried out and other such details. Similarly, the founder of Center for Media and Democracy has lamented that the testing program is too little and too late.
These weak objections are reflected by the lack of concern exhibited by the domestic consuming public, which is totally ignoring the BSE issue.
Exports show that a different situation pertains outside this country, however. Last year, beef exports from the United States to elsewhere in the world dropped by 82%. That reduced the country's market share among major beef traders in the world from 18% to 3%. See Page 37.
Meanwhile, in a related development, as you'll see on Page 31, a vaguely similar disease has surfaced in herds of elk and deer, and it's spreading. It's chronic wasting disease. It was detected years ago in animals in Colorado, but now it's being found in areas outside the Rocky Mountains, such as Wisconsin and upstate New York.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association is funding studies of a system that combats CWD and BSE, but the good news is that CWD doesn't make the leap from deer and elk into cattle. Better yet, CWE is a disease more closely related to scrape than to BSE. Scrape, a disease of sheep, has been known for centuries, and it has never leapt to another species, nor been associated with human ailments.
Let's hope the public's lack of concern in BSE-related matters continues and is ultimately proved to be well-founded passivity.