Mad cow has confidence stirred, but not shaken


Any drop in beef consumption likely to be short lived

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ-- According to a recent study conducted by Rutgers University's Food Policy Institute, most Americans know about the recent discovery of mad cow disease in Washington State, but retain their confidence in the beef supply.

Investigators confirmed the first and only known U.S. case of mad cow disease on a Washington State dairy farm in late 2003. Consumption of meat infected with mad cow disease is believed to result in a similar human condition known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a rare and fatal brain disease for which there is no treatment or cure.

While news of the discovery immediately evaporated the $3 billion U.S. beef export market, Americans are relatively unperturbed. Most said their confidence in the beef supply has not changed, and some said the USDA's prompt and efficient treatment of the case has actually led to an increase in confidence.

"This isolated case is not enough to dramatically disturb domestic confidence in the beef supply," said Dr. William Hallman, lead author of the study at the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers' Cook College. "Unlike consumers in many countries, Americans have a history of trust in their food regulators, and have a strong belief that the U.S. food supply is safe.

Nearly 68 percent of those who had heard of the case said their confidence in the beef supply remains unchanged and 8 percent said their confidence has actually increased. One in five Americans (22 percent) said their confidence has decreased, albeit not by much. Only 7 percent said their confidence has decreased 'a great deal', while 15 percent said it has fallen 'some' or 'a little'.

However, this decline in confidence does seem to be accompanied by a decrease in beef consumption among those who are most concerned. About 14 percent said they are eating less beef and 5 percent said they had eliminated beef from their diets altogether.

While confirming the drop in stated consumption patterns found in other recent polls, the Rutgers study suggests this reduction is likely temporary for most. Only about 1 percent of Americans say they have given up beef for good. Nearly 40 percent of those who have stopped eating beef said they will resume eating it within six months, assuming no other cases of mad cow are found, while a little more than a quarter said it will take more than six months.

"Our findings suggests that most who have given up beef in the short term may be grilling steaks again this summer," says Dr. Calum Turvey, agricultural economist and head of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers. "Meanwhile, overall beef consumption may not decrease at all, and may actually increase as consumers respond to lower prices."

Consumer confidence seems to have been buoyed by the belief that farmers and the government are taking appropriate measures to control mad cow disease. On a 1 to 10 scale where 10 meant "very confident," half of those interviewed assigned a rating of 8 or more to the government's ability to control the disease and conveyed similar confidence in farmers.

"Recent government actions may also have boosted confidence", says Brian Schilling, Associate Director of the Food Policy Institute, "Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman's message that the likelihood of human illness resulting from the case of mad cow disease is extremely low appears to have reassured many about the safety of the beef supply." Two thirds of Americans (66 percent) who had heard of the case were also aware of Veneman's statement, and 22 percent of these said it made them more confident in the safety of U.S. beef. Similarly, 18 percent felt reassured by the USDA's determination that the cow was of Canadian origin.

"The USDA's recently announced actions to further safeguard the U.S. beef supply from mad cow disease should help reclaim some lost consumer confidence," according to Dr. Hallman. For those indicating that the mad cow case had caused them to cut back or stop eating beef, about 4 in 10 said that better tracking, inspection and testing of cattle and beef will renew their confidence in the beef supply, while about 1 in 10 wanted tighter controls on cattle feed. For others, time may be the best remedy; 16 percent of Americans said that their confidence in the beef supply would return if no new cases of mad cow disease surface.

However, many Americans expect more cases to surface in the U.S. Of those interviewed, 70 percent believe it is likely that another mad cow case will be found (27 percent think it is "very likely"), and more than one-third incorrectly believed that other cases of mad cow had already been discovered in the United States (another 10 percent were not sure). Further, while there are no known cases of vCJD in the U.S. resulting from eating U.S. beef, 18 percent of those polled believed that such cases did exist (another 13 percent did not know).

About two thirds of those interviewed believe that someone in the U.S. will eventually eat beef infected with mad cow disease, but few are particularly worried that the disease poses a direct threat to the health of themselves or their families. Only about 5 percent of those who normally eat beef say they were 'extremely' or 'very' worried that someone in their family will contract mad cow disease.

The Food Policy Institute poll also found that many Americans have misconceptions about the nature and consequences of mad cow disease. While, three-quarters of those interviewed understand that the human equivalent of mad cow disease (vCJD) is fatal, only about half understand that it cannot be treated using antibiotics. Moreover, only 56 percent of those interviewed realize that cooking beef thoroughly will not reduce the chance of getting sick from eating beef contaminated with mad cow disease.

Results are based on a Food Policy Institute survey of 1,001 U.S. adults conducted from January 15-18. The sampling error is +/- 3.2 percent. The study was funded through Food Policy Institute core funds. Further findings from the study are available on the Food Policy Institute website:

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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