Consumers' fears carry over to food decisions
Many have stopped buying ground beef

April 19, 2001 USA Today by Anita Manning

American consumers, bombarded with news about livestock diseases in Europe, are confused and making food-buying decisions based on wrong information, a new poll finds.

In a random telephone survey of 815 people who are the primary food shoppers in their households, 14% said they had changed their food purchasing or family dining habits based on news about mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease.

Most said they had reduced or eliminated ground beef from their diets, according to the poll by public relations firm Porter Novelli, which represents clients in the food industry.

Mad cow disease has infected about 100 humans, most of them in England. The brain-wasting disease is fatal. Most scientists believe the humans caught the disease by consuming infected meat.

Foot-and-mouth disease affects cows, pigs, goats and other cloven-hoofed animals, but rarely affects humans.

"The public is understandably confused, not because they're ignorant, but because these are arcane diseases and both are happening in England," says Lester Crawford, director of Georgetown University's Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, who was not involved in the poll. Mad cow disease, which scientists call bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has never been found in the USA, and there has not been an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the USA since 1929.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak that began in England in February has caused the destruction of more than 1 million animals as British officials try to contain the disease. Mad cow disease emerged in England in the mid-1980s and has resulted in the slaughter of more than 77,000 cattle.

Photos of burning pyres of dead cattle "are a recapitulation of what (American consumers) saw just a short time ago with BSE," Crawford says, and many of the officials addressing concerns about foot-and-mouth disease are the same ones quoted about mad cow disease.

Crawford says consumer concern has alarmed the industry.

"Just in the last week, there has been an enormous number of meetings on BSE in the U.S. on the corporate level. Every food organization is cranking up its BSE machinery. The reason they're all doing that is because foot-and-mouth disease has now convinced them that it (a livestock epidemic) can happen."

Even though neither disease is currently in the USA, he says, "it seems to be the same agencies in both countries -- the United States and England -- that are in charge of keeping it out. Somebody made a mistake (in England), so all of sudden it becomes clear" that it could occur here.

That may be true, Crawford says, "but it's least likely here than in any country in the world."

Cattle diseases easily misunderstood, poll finds

* 19% think, incorrectly, that foot-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease are the same thing.

* 27% think, incorrectly, that there is a direct link between the two diseases.

* 46% think cows with foot-and-mouth disease can infect humans. (Such infection is rare.)

* 21% think, incorrectly, that mad cow disease infects only animals.

The Porter Novelli poll of 815 people was conducted April 6-9 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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