It was just another routine day at the Sunny Dene Ranch in Mabton, Wash. Routine, that is, until some of the staff at the 4,000 cow dairy operation noticed that a Holstein cow had become paralyzed while giving birth. So, the cow was shipped to Vern’s Moses Lake Meats and duly slaughtered. That was on Dec. 9, 2003.

However, because the cow was deemed a “downer” (later a subject of dispute), USDA veterinarians at the plant followed protocol and took a sample of her brain and sent it to the USDA’s Ames, Iowa, laboratory for BSE testing. Next a call came from the lab on Dec. 22 to the Veterinary Services Office of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), saying it had “a hot case.”

Dr. Andrea Morgan, who was standing in for chief veterinary officer Dr. Ron DeHaven, immediately called APHIS Administrator Bobby Acord and DeHaven. Acord was at home while DeHaven, who was recuperating from minor eye surgery, was at the Dulles Airport annex of the National Air and Space Museum.

APHIS and other USDA agencies had spent years preparing for a BSE case, but Acord and DeHaven knew what chaos a confirmed case would cause. Acord spent a sleepless night waiting for an update. DeHaven remembers waking up on the morning of Dec. 23 and thinking ‘Well, that was a horrible nightmare I had.’ His nightmare however, was reality. Another call came that morning from Ames, where further testing had identified the case as a “presumptive positive.”

Acord and DeHaven then rushed back to USDA headquarters. Meanwhile, the Veterinary Services Office had also called the Office of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Alisa Harrison, USDA’s director of communications. Harrison was preparing for 10 days of Christmas vacation when her phone rang. She rushed to Secretary Veneman’s office before remembering Veneman was at the White House.

“I had taken most the day off as my brother and his family were visiting for Christmas,” Veneman recalls. “I had promised to take my nephew and sister-in law to the White House so we were there in the morning.” The three were sitting in the White House mess hall eating lunch when her cell phone rang. The caller was her chief of staff, Dale Moore, who broke the news. Veneman immediately returned to her office and assembled senior staff and agency officials to the conference room, recalls Harrison.

Crisis communication

“We received a briefing from APHIS officials and our response plan elements were reviewed. The plan called for a public announcement when the results were confirmed by the reference lab in Weybridge, England. However, we were receiving calls from the outside asking if there was another case of Mad Cow in Canada, as the cattle market was responding to such a rumor. The secretary instinctively knew that the news could not wait for the three or four days needed for confirmation by Weybridge.”

USDA scientists then told Veneman they were confident it was a positive and she directed staff to prepare to make the announcement. This was around 3 p.m. A press conference to make the announcement was planned for 5 p.m.

“In retrospect, this decision was critical,” Harrison says. “Absent an authoritative announcement from the government that day, chaos would have ensued in the market, making it impossible for the government to regain any control of the situation and maintain confidence in the safety of the food supply.”

Harrison and the Office of Communications had two hours to write a press release, prepare Veneman’s remarks, set up USDA’s system for Web streaming and alert the media, all without letting the news leak.

“To maintain calm, we knew that we had to be a credible, reliable source of information. Our overarching goal was to tell the public what we knew as soon as we knew it to be true – complete transparency.”

Almost right on schedule, Secretary Veneman announced at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 23 that the US had confirmed its first case of BSE. Veneman, at her insistence, also made the point of telling the media that she was confident in serving beef at her house for Christmas dinner. “After all, I had it in my refrigerator,” she recalls.

Alongside her as technical spokesman was DeHaven, who says he had no hint he would be participating in the press conference until a few minutes before it began. He had never thought about being the national spokesman for anything, so it was one of those “Holy Cow” moments, he says.

Calm in the storm

Former USDA officials and industry leaders subsequently called DeHaven one of the heroes of the hour. They also praised the way Secretary Veneman had prepared USDA for a case and the way she handled it. Characteristically, DeHaven downplays his role.

“I was just the guy in front of the cameras. We had a cast of hundreds working behind the scenes,” he says. DeHaven, though, can take credit for coining a phrase later to be widely used.

“In the press conference, we made the point that the cow’s skeletal muscle meat was safe to eat. However, we attempted to recall all this meat from the food supply. To explain this, I said we were doing it ‘out of an abundance of caution’,” he adds.

Several people would later dub the animal as “the cow that stole Christmas.” For it was 24/7 for the next eight days for many top USDA and industry officials as they immersed themselves in daily briefings for media, key members of Congress, industry officials and international trading partners. They were also planning new food-safety initiatives in light of the case.

“It is remarkable that our APHIS, FSIS [Food Safety and Inspection Service] and administration employees gave up their holidays to respond, with many canceling holiday plans and returning to Washington,” Acord says. “Also noteworthy was the collaborative and mutually supportive working relationship between political and career employees. It was a great example of how government can work for the benefit of the public.”

Even more remarkable, DeHaven says, was that many APHIS employees had given up their holidays and Christmas the year before in a year-long effort (which ended Oct. 1) to eradicate Newcastle’s Disease in poultry in southern California. “Now, we were calling on the same workforce to do the same thing again,” he says.

One of those employees was APHIS’s area veterinarian in charge in Washington State. Dr. Gary Brickler, an Army reservist, had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan and was looking forward to spending the holidays with his family.

“To his great credit, he immediately jumped into the fray and spent night and day for the next several weeks trying to trace the Washington cow and her cohorts,” Acord says.

DeHaven recalls getting a phone call from Brickler at midnight on Christmas Eve to tell him the cow had been traced back to a Canadian dairy herd. “I remember thinking this would allow us to wrap up the case fairly quickly. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way,” he says.

Another senior USDA official preparing for Christmas was Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano. “I had taken vacation and was getting ready to go see my mother in Cumming, Ga. I was packing Christmas presents in the trunk of my car that I had just bought, when I got a call from USDA’s Undersecretary for the Agriculture Marketing Service, Bill Hawks. Bill advised me to come to [USDA’s] Whitten Building as soon as possible, that Secretary Veneman was on her way there herself to discuss next steps in the response.”

Murano recalls that many months before the case, at one of USDA’s weekly subcabinet meetings, Hawks brought with him a stuffed cow that, if someone pressed one of her hooves, began to laugh hysterically. The stuffed cow was supposed to be a funny depiction of a “mad cow,” she says.

“Many of us got a chuckle over the toy, except for Secretary Veneman, who did not find it at all amusing,” she adds. “So, when Mr. Hawks calls me to let me know of the first-ever case, I naturally thought he was joking, just as he had before. That’s when he said, ‘Listen, I learned my lesson. I would not joke about a thing like this with the secretary.’”

Preparation pays off
The fact that USDA was so well prepared minimized the impact of the case in the US. “For several years we had worked on a USDA BSE Response Plan that was constantly updated because the science of BSE was constantly evolving,” Acord says. “Federal, state and industry officials all participated in the plan’s development. We met often to share any new information and to make sure we understood each other’s role. The communication plan had segments for the consuming public, producers and trading partners. Our domestic success was due in large measure to having such a plan and having it skillfully implemented by all partners.”

In addition, Canada’s first home-grown BSE case on May 20 that year helped USDA know exactly what to do. “The Canadian case was almost like having our own case so we went through the whole drill with them,” Veneman says. “We helped our Canadian counterparts a lot during their case so we were pretty prepared for our own.”

Another reason for the lack of impact was the choice of DeHaven as USDA’s spokesman, Acord says. “He quickly earned credibility as an authoritative and credible source of information and his daily media briefings were reassuring to the public,” he adds. “This contributed greatly to consumer confidence and helped prevent a domestic market collapse.”

As soon as Murano arrived at the Whitten building, she called the leadership at FSIS to make sure they knew to stand by in case she needed information to provide Secretary Veneman, she recalls.

“At the meeting with the secretary, we discussed what each of our offices would take the lead in doing,” she says. “I reminded the secretary that we had been drafting a rule over the last several months that would ban specified risk materials (SRMs) from cattle over 60 months of age from being used in meat products. This was based on a risk assessment conducted by Harvard Univ. that had deemed the risk of the BSE agent being present in these materials as significant in cattle of this age. This was good news to the secretary since it meant we could propose our draft almost immediately, given that it was almost ready.

“Secondly, I was charged with making sure that the brain and spinal cord of the animal in question had not entered the food supply,” Murano adds. “This was because the animal had been non-ambulatory, and as such, its organs would not be allowed to be used for meat products. It became somewhat difficult to find out about whether the organs had indeed been discarded, given there had been a snowstorm in Washington State and it was going to take a bit of time for one of our supervisors in the area to get to the plant to confirm the whereabouts of these tissues.

“It was only moments before going in front of national reporters in the Whitten press room that I received confirmation from FSIS that, indeed, neither the brain nor the spinal cord of the animal had entered the food supply,” Murano recalls. “This was a key piece of information since it provided reassurance to the public that indeed there was no danger of BSE from consuming meat products. After the announcement, we went to work to finalize the draft rule and published it for comment on Jan. 12, 2004, in record time.”

Meanwhile, APHIS began work immediately to increase its BSE surveillance plan numbers, says Acord. “We worked with the rendering industry to sample ‘deads’ picked up on the farm,” he says. “We also worked with the Food and Drug Administration to strengthen our feed ban by removing all SRMs.”

Holiday headlines

The case was top national news for the eight days from Dec. 23, Harrison says. “For thousands, it consumed the 2003 holiday season and many months and years following,” Harrison adds. “It rocked the stock and cattle market; called into question every regulatory inch of the US BSE prevention system; and created political intrigue that would fully test the delicate balance of diplomacy and science in international trade policy.”

Beef-industry leaders also played key roles in the US’s successful handling of the case. After being notified of the case around noon on Dec. 23, American Meat Institute president and CEO Patrick Boyle returned to his office and then home to watch the secretary’s press conference with his children, he recalls.

“We all thought Secretary Veneman did an excellent job and decided to head to our favorite DC steakhouse for dinner,” he says. “I remembered that earlier in the year, after Canada found its first BSE-positive cow, eating steak in Canada had almost become a patriotic act. The Boyle clan felt very patriotic that December night.”

Boyle spent the next day doing a whirlwind of press interviews. “I gave numerous interviews – both print and TV – throughout the day and remember spending Christmas Eve at the NBC studio doing a live interview with Lester Holt on MSNBC,” he says.

AMI’s Janet Riley, senior vice president public affairs and member services, even hosted an NBC news crew at her home Christmas Day. “They called at 2 p.m. and asked me to come to the studio for an interview,” she recalls. “I said ‘Hey, guys, it’s Christmas. I’ve got guests coming. But I’m cooking a tenderloin so if you’d like to come to my house, come on over.’” They agreed. “NBC filmed me opening the oven door over and over to show that I was about to feed a safe tenderloin to my family. Also, the reporter on the story let me just talk and I got some very positive messages on a piece that aired on Christmas evening and the next morning on the Today Show.”

AMI’s Boyle praises the roles that Veneman and DeHaven played. “It was also helpful that industry was able to echo that government message to our retail and foodservice customers. Having that message coordination between government and industry was a key to successfully dealing with BSE at home. However, it obviously proved to be much less successful with foreign governments.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association sprang into action after learning of the case two hours before USDA’s press conference. It was well-prepared, as it had started planning for a case of BSE in the 1990s as the disease was surfacing in England. CEO Terry Stokes immediately convened a meeting of its Issues Management, Public Relations and Policy staff, who contacted USDA, the FDA and started reaching out to congressional offices.

“Our Issues Management team updated talking points and issues advisories for our state organizations and stakeholders,” says team leader Kendal Frazier. “We also activated, a dark website that had been built several years before. The website was designed to be activated if the US ever had a BSE case.”

NCBA’s press conference for nearly 150 media immediately followed that of USDA’s. It also conducted 100 individual media interviews within the first few hours after the case was announced. The strategy was to give an industry perspective on the first BSE case, Frazier says. NCBA had a core team of 15-20 staff who worked the BSE issue and did nothing else until Jan. 4.

“Because of our quick response, we became the ‘standard of truth’ with the media and consumers,” Stokes says.

“The critical success factor was that USDA and the industry spoke with one voice,” says Stokes. “The public was not getting mixed messages. This built confidence with consumers. We anticipated a decline in consumer confidence regarding the safety of US beef, but actually consumer confidence increased. Also, when surveyed, consumers had more trust in USDA and the industry than they did in other groups.”

“The industry was also fortunate that the first case happened in Washington State,” Frazier says. “Patti Brumbach, executive director of the Washington State Beef Commission, was a seasoned state executive with terrific public relations and issues management skills. A few years before the case, she had pulled together the agricultural and livestock organizations in the state and did a crisis management plan. She deserves a lot of credit for her efforts.”

AMI’s Riley notes the united industry effort. “The news couldn’t have come at a worse time given the holidays and yet there was a remarkable amount of coordination and sharing of information, especially between AMI and NCBA,” she says. “We would email each other about the many media requests and try to find someone who could handle it. I think we all wanted industry’s voice to be represented and we were one unified team in meeting the demands for interviews.”

Controlled chaos

The first US BSE case provided not just the beef industry but many other industries and organizations a model of how to prepare for and handle a crisis. By all accounts, USDA and the industry did just about everything right. In particular, they planned for years for such an event and knew exactly what to do when the case was discovered. There were also particular decisions made by USDA that minimized the domestic impact of the case.

“Having the forethought to commission a risk assessment prior to any of this happening was a brilliant move by the secretary,” Murano says. “She had initiated it in the aftermath of the BSE cases in the UK in 2000. Had we not had this to rely upon, we would have been scrambling to explain to the public what we intended to do to protect them from this agent. In addition, the ban issued by the FDA on the feeding of animal parts to animals because of the UK cases was also a very smart decision, which again, provided the public with assurances of safety when we had the first case.”

The biggest lesson of the case for Acord was planning. “Plan, plan, plan and make the plan a partnership with industry and states and stick to the plan once a crisis hits,” he says. “Any animal-disease emergency will be a chaotic event under the best of circumstances. A plan will give some organization to the chaos and guide you to a more manageable environment.”

However, Acord is disappointed that the case did not spark implementation of a national animal-identification system, which had been discussed for years and partially developed by 2003.

“Not having an animal traceability system in place contributed significantly to international market losses,” he adds. “We could not demonstrate to trading partners that we could trace all the cohorts of the cow in the index case. We could not convince government officials in importing countries that this was a single case and there would not be more to follow. Those countries remembered the steady trickle of cases in the EU and gave the US no credit for having had a feed ban in place long enough to prevent widespread cases of BSE.”

“In the US, the government worked with the industry to explain the science and tamp down any emotional public reaction to this disease,” Acord says. “But in other countries, the government succumbed to the emotion and to pressures from their beef industries, ignored the science and supported their public’s panicked reaction.”

“Perhaps the international arena could have been handled better in the sense that visits with trade partners could have included food-safety experts, not just policy officials, to convince them of the science behind our safety claims,” Murano adds.

Harrison cites six lessons learned from the handling of the case. They are: Take action before you are forced to; talk openly and proactively with the public; maintain public confidence in government officials; plan how you will communicate; recruit third-party experts; and engage top management.

Noting the importance of government and industry speaking with one voice, NCBA’s Stokes says his fear is that this would not occur in today’s environment. Internationally, it was important that the US “walk the walk” not just “talk the talk”. But it ended up experiencing what it imposed on other countries in terms of import bans.

NCBA’s Frazier cites a key aspect of how the BSE case was handled. “In a crisis, you are in a race to establish the ‘truth,’” he says. “Years of planning and preparation by industry and government, excellent spokespersons and speaking with one voice resulted in maintaining consumer confidence in US beef at a high level among US consumers. We were able to establish the ‘truth’ that US beef was safe.”

One huge lesson from the case was the challenges involved in persuading other countries to start accepting US beef shipments again. Lost markets have, to date, cost the beef industry $16 billion. M&P will examine these challenges and the costs in the January 2014 issue.