A popular Texas bumper sticker reads: "The only mad cow in America is Oprah." Not anymore, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that the first confirmed home-grown case of mad cow is a Texas beef cow.
As Sheldon Rampton and I report in Mad Cow USA, the United States failed to take the measures necessary to stop the spread of the fatal dementia dubbed mad cow disease. However, a successful PR campaign by industry and government has, to this day, fooled most of the press and the public into believing that all necessary steps were taken long ago. A major part of the effort to spin and intimidate media coverage involved suing Oprah Winfrey under the Texas Food Disparagement Act, after her 1996 program examining mad cow risks in America.
To this day, the real "firewall feed ban" necessary to stop mad cow disease in the United State has not been constructed. USDA officials simply lie to the press and public when they say, as USDA veterinarian John Clifford did on June 29, that a "ruminant to ruminant feed ban" prevents cattle protein from being fed to cattle in the US, cutting off the spread of the disease.
In reality, as Clifford well knows, U.S. animal feed regulations allow hundreds of millions of pounds of cattle blood and fat to be fed back to cattle each year, including the widespread weaning of calves on calf milk replacer and milk formula containing cattle blood protein. In addition, one million tons a year of "poultry litter" are shoveled from barn floors at chicken factories and fed to cattle, although the spilled and defecated chicken feed in the litter can contain up to 30 percent mammalian meat and bone meal.
In Mad Cow USA we explain how and why Texas cattlemen, at the urging of now-governor Rick Perry, sued Oprah Winfrey in early 1996 for the Texas "crime" of beef disparagement. Oprah's sin was to host a balanced program on mad cow risks that aired April 16, 1996. Her guests included Dr. Gary Weber of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Dr. Will Hueston of the USDA, and former cattle rancher Howard Lyman.
During the show, Lyman revealed - for the first time before a national audience - that cattle slaughterhouse waste was being fed to U.S. cattle and that the United States would develop mad cow disease if the practice continued. As we now know, Lyman's warning and prediction were accurate. In fact, mad cow disease was probably spreading in Texas at the time of Oprah's show.
Now that mad cow disease has been detected in Texas, it is interesting to review the unfortunately successful efforts of then-Agriculture Commissioner and now-Governor Rick Perry to intimidate and silence media coverage of mad cow risks in the United States using the Texas food disparagement act.
It was on March 20, 1996 that the British government shocked the world with its announcement - after ten years of denying it could happen - that young people with a fatal dementia were dead or dying of the human version of mad cow disease. As we report in Mad Cow USA, "In Texas, agriculture officials responded to the news of human deaths in England with a publicity stunt, organizing a cookout and offering reporters slices of smoked brisket while Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry criticized the media for stirring up public fears. A spokesman for the meat industry stood along beside him and moralized about the need to avoid 'hysteria in the US about domestic beef.'"
After Oprah's allegedly criminal show, Rick Perry demanded that she be dragged into a Texas courtroom. From Mad Cow USA:
In Texas, State Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry asked the attorney general to use the state's new 'food disparagement law' to file a lawsuit against Lyman and the Oprah show. When the attorney general declined, beef feedlot operator Paul Engler and a company named Cactus Feeders stepped in to shoulder the burden, hiring a powerhouse L.A. Attorney to file a lawsuit which sought $2 million in damages plus punitive fines. 'We're taking the Israeli action on this thing,' Engler said. 'Get in there and just blow the hell out of somebody.' The lawsuit, filed on May 28, 1996, complained as follows: 'The defendants allowed anti-meat activists to present biased, unsubstantiated, and irresponsible claims against beef, not only damaging the beef industry but also placing a tremendous amount of unwarranted fear in the public. ... Defendants' conduct in making the statements contained herein and allowing those statements to be aired without verifying the accuracy of such statements goes beyond all possible bounds of decency and is utterly intolerable in a civilized society.'
After spending millions of dollars and years of her life battling the lawsuit, Oprah was able to claim victory. However, Rick Perry and the cattle industry also won, since they succeeded in squelching news coverage of mad cow risks in the United States. This media silence helped create an atmosphere where the very practices that spread mad cow disease are allowed to continue, unquestioned. But the cows have come home to roost, as Governor Perry engages in frantic crisis management PR to ensure his constituents, the country and the world that Texas beef is safe.
On June 30 the New York Times reported, "Governor Rick Perry of Texas issued a statement urging citizens to remain calm and be reassured that they could trust the state's beef. 'I, for one, will continue to eat red meat, and intend to do so later tonight with complete confidence,' Mr. Perry said. He later issued a revised statement that dropped the reference to his dinner plans but added that Texas beef was 'as safe today as it was yesterday.'"