These should be heady days at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).


The nation’s $1+ trillion deficit is not much of a speed bump for the $288 billion potpourri we call the 2012 Farm Bill, replenishing the supply of goodies USDA gives out to those who qualify in the 400 pages of legislation.  

But crisis management is giving USDA the fits.  First, USDA did not quickly enough explain and defend its decision-making regarding finely textured lean beef, now known the world over as “pink slime.”   By the time USDA got into the arena, it looked too much like a marketing mission.

Since on or about April 18, another crisis management challenge has confronted USDA and they’ve hit a couple bumps on this one, too. That of course was the time when a “downer” dairy cow in Tulare County, CA was put out of its misery and the rendering truck was called.

When the carcass got to the transfer station in Hanford, CA, the rendering company took a brain sample, which was sent off first the University of California, Davis and then to the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Iowa.   

UC Davis was not sure on April 19, but the NVSL found the sample positive for atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) on or after April 20.

The public announcement would not come until mid-afternoon on Tuesday, April 24 and from that moment on mad cow disease — as BSE is nicknamed — was back in the news for the first time in six years.

Now let me step in here.  Not only did this timing get our attention, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulated derivatives, wants to know more about when this came down, too.

It’s probably going to come down to when did NVSL know the 10-year, 7 month old dairy cow was positive for BSE, and when did the lab tell John Clifford, USDA’s chief veterinarian?  Then it’s a matter of whether USDA kept the secret while moving quickly to make it publicly known to all.

Before the announcement, cattle markets moved south on mad cow rumors that could have come out of California, the Iowa lab, USDA’s mammoth bureaucracy, or parts unknown.

In this incident, the media keeps finding California sources to fill in details USDA is leaving out. Clifford kept more of a lid on the 2006 BSE case in Texas. That strategy is clearly not working this time.

But putting aside the whole issue of how “material information” that might roil a market was handled, USDA fell down in some other ways too. Ever since its public relations team brought Johnson & Johnson through the Tylenol recall almost with a scratch, crisis communications has become its own discipline with some very specific rules.

One of the best lines I’ve heard on the subject come from a crisis communications coach for top CEOs, who said: “You don’t want to be a bystander in your own crisis.”  Much of this advice amounts to making decision-makiers understand that in a crisis moving fast with credible spokesmen in all the right venues is critical.  If it’s not done, other messages moves into the vacuum.

That said, we outsiders do not know who is calling the communications shots at USDA.  Is the best advice of the agency communications professionals followed by top executives or do the “suits” do what they want.  Not knowing that does not erase the mistakes.

For example:

– Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for food safety, should have been front and center.   USDA’s main message is that beef and dairy are safe.  Instead it let its bureaucratic organization with BSE falling under the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) dictate its media strategy.  Folks are ready to believe a doctor on TV telling them their food is safe; a vet is a stretch.

– Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, should have been sent to Hanford, CA to appear from the scene on national network TV and on local California shows by early Wednesday morning.  Vilsack examining the diseased cow’s carcass would have been good TV, and showed he’s not afraid and we needn’t be.

– As USDA’s chief veterinarian and top BSE expert, Clifford was the face of the agency for this round of mad cow.   Putting aside whether that was a mistake, it would have helped Clifford to get him out of his business suit and allow him to appear as viewers expect when they see a vet, whether it be a white lab coat or like their country veterinarian.

 He a Kentucky native,  who earned his DVM at the University of Missouri.  He’s been with USDA since 1985, managing the BSE issue since day one. Instead of putting him in a venue where he’d be comfortable, USDA has made him a “suit” speaking before the flags. Clifford does not look comfortable.

In the end, USDA should be grateful for the industry and consumer groups who jumped into help it out. Outside groups moved into space left vacant by USDA’s slow-moving media show.

For example, Dr. Richard Raymond, the former under secretary for food safety, penned a 11-fact list that petty well put the BSE issue to bed.   The only thing he did not do was gift wrap it and leave it at USDA’s communications shop.

Courtney Rowe, USDA press secretary, late in the week put out a memo to the media crying about “misleading articles.”  I think she would have been better off considering it spilt milk. I am not saying I did not too see and hear things that made me cringe as stuff moved in to fill the space.  

For example, a TV network used the word “epidemic” and a news website completely twisted some research to speculate about “airborne” transmission.  I am sure there were plenty of others.

In crisis communications, however, you expected to knock down rumors and deal with misinformation. You measure success on whether you’ve used your best resources to dominate the message delivery and keep the public’s trust.

USDA still needs to blow the all-clear signal after they’ve finished testing cows in the Central Valley and the epidemiological report will follow in weeks or months.  But I am going to be surprised if this BSE incident has much in the way of “legs.”

But if I were Tom Vilsack, I’d get some work going  now on a plan for crisis management when the nation’s fifth mad cow is discovered at some time in the future.  Better to be ready than to just be mad.

  • Keen Observer

    USDA certainly does have its hands full educating and accurately informing all of us upon matters of agriculture, nutrition, medicines, livestock diseases and food poisoning. One important challenge to knowing ‘how much’, ‘when’ and ‘how often’ to inform is the oft-touted (and very real) fact some 99% of Americans have little idea (or interest) in what farming and food production, in all its facets, is all about.
    The real menace to public sanity in these matters is the somewhat less than 1% of those 99% who know nothing, believe anything and fly off the handle on a mission to distort and damage our mostly OK food system. Foodies. Damned foodies.
    Foodies have all the easy answers, all the autocratic solutions. Solutions to problems we don’t even have. They dream of strict government-enforced bans and of mystical, magical alternatives to modern agriculture. Alternatives that do not exist, except in some backyard or little plastic greenhouse somewhere. Alternatives that can never scale up to feed the world or any significant part of the less affluent global population. Alternatives that are no practical alternative at all, merely a useless distraction.
    Worse, these out-of-touch dreamers privately recognize the inferiority and futility of their pet farming and food production mini-systems, and because they have no real proven benefits to convince us they must resort to negative advertising to trick us. They are always on the attack, picking and blaming and working up a blustering outrage over little flaws in our evolving agriculture. Little flaws both real and imagined, all skillfully twisted and blown out of proportion.
    Yes, USDA has its hands full. And they could do a better job of crisis management. Well, of faux-crisis management, really. The LFTbeef thing was no crisis. It was a railroading. USDA should have ignored it and stuck with science and economics in their oversight of LFTbeef. The finding of another “mad cow” is not a crisis. It is a routine epidemiological event with powder keg implications among a public kept professionally misinformed and manipulated by foodie activists.
    So far, I think USDA has handled things just about right with the latest BSE finding. They have released facts (facts, you remember what facts look like, don’t you) once they are known, rather than leak suspicions and innuendo to sensationalizing journalists. Journalists who are part of the less than 1% of the 99% who know nothing, believe anything and work tirelessly to maliciously trash modern agricultural food systems. Foodies. Damned foodies.

  • I remember that second Texas mad cow, the one they did finally confirm, 7+ MONTHS AFTER the brain tissues of the suspect cow had already tested positive by a secret test. however, the ratification of the BSE Minimal Risk Region MRR was in the process of being put into place to do away with the BSE Geographical Bovine Risk assessments GBRs, which were put into place to keep BSE from spreading. however, the OIE and the USDA put forth the BSE MRR policy to be able to trade all strains of BSE globally. 7+ months later, and after an act of Congress by the OIG, England finally confirmed that mad cow. if not for the act of Congress to over ride Washington decission to not test that cow, that cow would have never been confirmed. the first Texas mad cow was never confirmed, only rendered to cover up without any test at al. my point is, it does not surprise me that there were days and days that this mad cow was not announced, as to so the markets could digest the trading backlash. it’s happened before. this is typical. the all clear sign will be given, and the totally false information will continue from the USDA. it’s what they do $$$
    15 years later, and it still amazes me the same bull shit the USDA puts out, of which most of the media follows. both of which are oblivious. very sad…
    OIE says the animal was sub-clinical ;
    also, officials have confirmed it was a atypical L-type BASE BSE.
    I am deeply disturbed about the false and terribly misleading information that is being handed out by the USDA FDA et al about this recent case of the atypical L-type BASE BSE case in California. these officials are terribly misinformed (I was told they are not lying), about the risk factor and transmissibility of the atypical L-type BASE BSE. these are very disturbing transmission studies that the CDC PUT OUT IN 2012. I urge officials to come forward with the rest of this story.
    It is important to reiterate here, even though this animal did not enter the food chain, the fact that the USA now finds mad cow disease in samplings of 1 in 40,000 is very disturbing, and to add the fact that it was an atypical L-type BASE BSE, well that is very disturbing in itself. 1 out of 40,000, would mean that there were around 25 mad cows in the USA annually going by a National herd of 100 million (which now I don’t think the USA herd is that big), but then you add all these disturbing factors together, the documented link of sporadic CJD cases to atypical L-type BASE BSE, the rise in sporadic CJD cases in the USA of a new strain of CJD called ‘classification pending Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease’ cpCJD, in young and old, with long duration of clinical symptoms until death. the USA has a mad cow problem and have consistently covered it up. it’s called the SSS policy. …
    see full text with updated transmission studies and science on the atypical L-type BASE BSE Jan. 2012 CDC. …
    ***Oral Transmission of L-type Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in Primate Model
    ***Infectivity in skeletal muscle of BASE-infected cattle
    ***feedstuffs- It also suggests a similar cause or source for atypical BSE in these countries.
    ***Also, a link is suspected between atypical BSE and some apparently sporadic cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
    now, for the rest of the story, the most updated science on the atypical BSE strains, and transmission studies…
    Thursday, April 26, 2012
    Update from USDA Regarding a Detection of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in the United States WASHINGTON bulletin at 04/26/2012 10:11 PM EDT
    I lost my mom to the hvCJD, ‘confirmed’ DOD 12/14/97, and just made a promise. …
    Terry S. Singeltary Sr. Bacliff, Texas USA 77518

  • Steve

    Gee Dan,
    From your article it seems that all USDA really needs to do is streamline its in-house Damage Control system and all our problems will be over — you know — Don’t Worry — Be Happy!
    Their coverup is as full of holes as Mad Cow wasted brain tissue, however…
    For the real story — Industrial Meat consumers might want to see: “Why You Should Be worried About the California Mad Cow Case” by investigative reporterTom Philpott at:
    Here’s a few quotes:
    On “Testing”:
    “So when the rendering plant picked up the infected cow, it was just another dead cow to be rendered. However, in an update released Thursday afternoon, the USDA revealed that the animal was “humanely euthanized” on the dairy farm where it lived, “after it developed lameness and became recumbent.” Apparently, the dairy farm did not communicate with the rendering plant that the cow had gone lame, and thus was a good candidate for BSE infection.
    Altogether, the USDA program tests about 40,000 cows a year for mad cow—a tiny fraction of the millions that are slaughtered or otherwise die each year. (Bloomberg puts the portion tested annually at “less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. cattle herd.”) By contrast, in the European Union, all sick or downed cattle over the age of 4 years old, all healthy cows over six years, are tested before being slaughtered or rendered. The California cow, the USDA said in its Thursday statement, was 10 years and seven months old—so it would have been automatically tested in Europe.”
    On the “probable” source:
    “The feed question is vital. If the cow indeed developed BSE through some genetic mutation and not through feed, then this particular mad cow instance can be viewed as a random and extremely rare event. But if feed was the pathway, then we have to ask hard—and for the dairy and beef industries, extremely uncomfortable—questions about just what we’re feeding our nation’s vast herd of cows. And ifthat cow contracted BSE from what it ate, wouldn’t other cows have been exposed, too?
    Paul Brown, a scientist retired from the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, questions the USDA’s assertion that atypical BSE isn’t associated with feed. “The most likely explanation is that it arises from the same source as typical BSE,” he said, which is infected feed. He added that it’s a “theoretical possibility” that the California BSE case arose spontaneously, but “there’s no evidence for it.””
    On cow parts being feed to cows via poultry litter in their feed:
    “Now, meat and bone meal from cows is explicitly banned from cow diets. But it ends up in chicken feed; a significant amount of it spills into bedding and ends up in poultry litter; and poultry litter gets fed back to cows.
    Official numbers on just how much poultry litter ends up in bovine diets is hard to come by. But with corn and soy prices at heightened levels in recent years, feedlot operators are always looking for cheaper alternatives, and poultry litter is very much in the mix. Consumer Union’s Michael Hansen claims that 2 billion pounds of chicken litter are consumed by cows each year—as much as a third of which consists of spilled feed, including bovine meat and bone meal. ”
    On infectious BSE (Mad Cow) in our food system:
    “Even if the case of BSE in California arose spontaneously—and even if atypical BSE in general has so far been arising spontaneously when it has been found in Europe—it also seems to be quite infectious. As the CDC’s Belay told me, “all of these prion-related diseases are transmissible through infected material.” If that infected cow in California hadn’t been randomly selected for testing, it could have ended up being rendered for poultry feed—and ultimately fed back to cattle.
    But even more than the chicken-litter issue, what concerns Detwiler is the issue of compliance. “There hadn’t been a case in six years,” she pointed out. “Hopefully, [rendering plants] are removing brains and spinal columns with care,” she said. “There’s a tendency with anything to let the guard down—my message would be that we really can’t get complacent on this issue.”
    While the USDA is downplaying the public health ramifications of the California BSE case, US public health officials should see it as a kick in the pants. It’s time to ramp up the testing of cows—and Europe has proven it can be done economically. And it’s time to ban all cow protein from animal feed—or, at the very least, get chicken litter out of cow diets.”
    Wouldn’t it be great if USDA went into a REAL Damage Control mode — by beefing up testing and finally prohibiting animal parts in feed???

  • Ted

    Commenter “Steve” seems to have a serious chicken litter fetish. He insists it is fed to all sorts of cows, then admits there is no evidence of it. He goes on to confuse feedlot steers (which might, conceivably be exposed to some chicken litter although there is no evidence of it) with dairy cattle. Can “Steve” or anyone else confirm the ‘mad cow’ in question was, in fact, fed chicken litter at her home on that California dairy? Of course not. This bizarre fixation with chicken manure is an excellent example of the overly simplistic answers and twisted negative campaign diversion tactics employed by foodie cultists, as described by commenter “Keen Observer”. There is no limit to insipid foodie clairvoyance, apparently. If only real life were so simple!

  • Steve

    Yo “Ted”
    Maybe you enjoy poultry manure as a MAJOR feed in your beef supply but it’s not for me, thank you… The fact is poultry manure is a regular cattle feed.
    Check out the Akey corporation — “A Leader in Nutrition Solutions”
    “Poultry litter is commonly fed to all classes of beef cattle…”
    It’s a little hard on the equipment though:
    “However, litter is abrasive to silage unloading equipment…” They recommend stack poultry litter 6′ to 8′ high and let age for 3-5 weeks. “Stacked litter should be fed in 3 months from time of stacking.’
    Perhaps the best guidance is “Eat what you like, but know what you’re eating”. Maybe the real fetish here is DENIAL….

  • Ted

    Our litter-loving boy “Steve” doesn’t seem to know his beef cows from his dairy cows. In spite of all that still he believes he really knows his sh!t (or his chicken litter, anyways). I wasted a couple minutes looking at his not-so-incriminating citation — it is an obscure sales flyer from some company that sells vitamin supplements for beef animals, or some such. No indication anyone in the beef industry actually follows this eccentric advice. And, of course, the mad cow in question was a 10 year old dairy cow, not a 2 yr old beef steer. Not comparable at all. So very typical of the 1% of the 99% who haven’t the first legitimate clue about food and farming in America. Just googling up obscure irrelevant tidbits and flinging foodie nonsense against the wall hoping something will stick. Is enough to make one mad, or to paraphrase the title of this article: foodie alarmists are “Just Sad”.

  • Peter P.

    OK, so USDA could have freaked out, instantly fed tons of scary speculation to columnists and bloggers who would happily have precipitated a needless panic and possibly mob hysteria. How would that be the more productive course? How will crashing the stock market, for example, protect us from mad cow disease? Some of you people sound more like diabolical anarchists than esteemed scientists. Get over yourselves.

  • Jen

    I agree with Keen Observer & Ted 100%.

  • JP

    FDA bans mammalian protein from ruminant feed except for milk & milk products, blood & blood products, porcine origin, gelatin and basically leftovers of USDA inspected meat for human consumption under 21 CFR 589.2000. Does this mean mammalian proteins are not found in ruminent feed? No, improper flushing of equipment, failing to sequence the manufacture of feed, using a feed ingredient contaminated with mammalian protein has led to ruminant feed being contaminated. The FDA rule is only meant to curtail the promulgation of BSE in ruminants not stop it.
    Is atypical BSE caused by feed? My internet research says no. CJD (not vCJD) in humans can occur spontaneously, but it also includes persons exposed to infected tissues during medical procedures. Since prions are chemical and heat tolerant, to me that means atypical could be transmissible by feed. Research determined that Kuru in humans was transmitted by the ritualistic consumption of the dead. Kuru was postulated as becoming infectious after someone with CJD was consumed.
    For years USDA stated that there was no BSE in this country. Even when the 1st case appeared, they spent an inordinate amount of time tracing the animal to Canada and convincing the US that it was infected in Canada.
    This case is a big deal. Back in the ’90s, Germany began finding BSE when it tested every cattle sent to slaughter over 30 months of age. It’s time, the US put something similar in place.