Foot-and-mouth Disease Poses Challenge for U.S. Beef industry

First there was mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Now there is foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), called hoof-and-mouth in the U.S. And through it all is the stampede of media reports on each new outbreak, written in lengthy and often pictorially graphic detail.

In some ways, suggest observers, the negative publicity surrounding these outbreaks in Europe may plague the U.S. beef industry in ways that go far beyond the impact of the diseases themselves.

“One of the problems is that the U.S. media is close to being irresponsible, scare-mongering and ill-informed,” said Wharton marketing professor George S. Day. “BSE is a real problem because it affects humans, but it has been contained. Hoof-and-mouth doesn’t affect humans at all. Knowing that, industry members should get out the word that the beef they are producing is safe. They should be totally forthcoming and inform everyone about what is going on, which should be easy because, in reality, the beef is safe.”

The industry should also “encourage the media to stop showing pictures of sheep and cattle herds being burned,” Day added. “It is only two weeks’ worth of British cattle consumption that has been destroyed … The industry needs to make sure the media puts it in context.”

Robert E. Mittelstaedt, Jr., vice dean and director of Wharton’s Aresty Institute of Executive Education, noted the “dilemma that foot-and-mouth disease poses for the beef industry in the U.S. There are times you market to the problem, but there are times you just try to market positively” and don’t mention the problem at all. The challenge for the industry, he said, is “not reminding people [about this disease] who otherwise might not be thinking about it.”

Not that there is any dearth of groups willing to speak out about FME. “I see that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are saying that they hope hoof-and-mouth disease comes to the U.S. so people will stop eating beef,” said Wharton legal studies professor Thomas W. Dunfee. “Of course, that is a strange way of expressing your concern for animals, but then it shows you the depth of the problem the beef industry will have.”

The vast majority of articles about foot-and-mouth disease have been centered in Europe, primarily in England, because this highly contagious disease has already spread to Ireland, France, the Netherlands and possibly Germany. In addition, two of England’s biggest industries – farming and tourism – are suffering huge losses as whole sections of the country are being stripped of cattle and closed to visitors. Even in some U.S. airports, air travelers are now required to clean their shoes as they arrive in order to prevent any possible spread of the disease.

Meanwhile, those in the U.S. beef industry say they still have the confidence of the public that their products are safe.

“I was at a major food event in Philadelphia and brought a stack of information about foot-and-mouth disease, figuring I would get a lot of questions,” said Carrie Bomgardner, a member of the Pennsylvania Beef Council, the statewide trade group for the beef industry. “More than 5,000 people came to our booth but I received only three questions about the disease. I thought we would be deluged, in light of all the stories on the news. There weren’t even jokes about it.”

Nonetheless, those who deal with beef in their products are ready to handle consumer fears. “We did some polling of consumers and discovered that we are not yet to the point where we need to do advertising about it,” said Chris Bosch, a spokeswoman for Burger King. “So far, we feel the public is confident that we are providing them with quality products that are disease-free.”

Bosch said Burger King has undertaken a big education effort with its more than 1,500 franchisees – 92% of all Burger Kings are franchises – about the two diseases. “We have issued a briefing statement both on BSE and hoof-and-mouth, what these things are and the safety precautions the corporation has taken,” she said. “In fact, we use beef from muscle meat, which has never been a cause of BSE. We tell the franchisees that BSE has never been in the United States and hoof-and-mouth hasn’t been here since 1929. We feel the federal government guidelines will be a firewall.”

Wharton legal studies professor Thomas Donaldson warned that the industry has to be careful not to over-advertise its alleged safety efforts. People could feel that a herd of sheep or cattle is being destroyed “only for public relations reasons,” he noted. And if that’s true, then “people will see through it and it will be counter-productive. These kinds of efforts can easily backfire.”

As of now, industry representatives said, they won’t even be resorting to any official public relations efforts. “We’re confident that the public knows the incidence of both diseases is so minuscule they are unlikely to be affected,” said Bosch. “Still, there is a tremendous amount of media coverage. That could actually help us in the end if it continues to show that the government is doing its job policing the situation.”

But there are other concerns as well, said Dunfee. There is the ethical problem that Britain may have of banning beef sales in its own country, but letting [the beef] be sold abroad, just to keep its industry viable. “You need some supply-side accountability to be stable long term,” said Dunfee. “You can say, ‘Well, we’re telling [purchasers] about the scientific evidence and then it’s their responsibility.’ That may not be adequate. In those other countries, especially ones that are not democracies, you may have a gatekeeper in the government whose interest doesn’t lie with the general public. He may allow the beef in because he is gaining from it. You have to be treating people equally both within your country and outside it.”

Even without these sorts of ethical issues, Mittelstaedt said, members of the beef industry face a long-term problem with no easy solution. “I would say they are going to require two different advertising campaigns. First, they will have to acknowledge the disease problem and deal with it and second, they are going to need positive advertising that, essentially, doesn’t bring it up. In some ways, it would be as if Southwest Airlines, which has the best crash record in the industry, had to say, ‘We’ve killed fewer people than any other airline.’ It will be very difficult to bring back people who stop eating beef because of this.”

A major concern for the beef industry, unlike the airlines, is that it is such a decentralized business, Mittelstaedt added. “You do all you can and then two farmers somewhere slip up. The industry has to go out and educate farmers, too. But, you never know, that could turn out well. If word gets out to the public that the beef industry is trying hard to do all this, the effort may engender more confidence. But it is a lot of work and it will have to be done over a long period of time.”

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