30, 2004: When the United States Department of Agriculture
announced North America's second animal with mad cow disease,
the first news was all about borders slamming shut and the
consequent impact on markets. McDonald's shares fell five
percent. U.S. Cattle prices tumbled almost 18 percent as a
$3 billion export market blinked out. There was talk that
growth in U.S. fast food outlets was at risk.
Within days the U.S. media coverage shifted dramatically.
Almost every non-government organization with peripheral connections
to the U.S. food system published essays; wrote letters to
the editor or appeared on talk shows. Their issue was not
the market impact of one cow with a fatal disease. It was
not a business story. It was a food, health and environment
story. Even the would-be presidents in the race for the Democratic
nomination made pronouncements about the food system.
Incidentally this was quite different from the Canadian experience
with one sick cow seven months earlier. Most Canadian stories
were based on official information from government agencies,
spokespeople for farm and food businesses and key politicians
like Albert's Premier Ralph Klein. To this day, BSE is a business
story in Canada but not in the U.S.
What makes one sick cow in the U.S. a food story?
First, conventional U.S. agriculture is a long way down the
road to industrialization - considerably further than Canada.
The U.S. food system is becoming a throughput machine where
the dominant values are technology, growth and the abandonment
of restraint. It is a system that prizes efficiency, competitiveness
and maximum production above all else. It is a system that,
internally, lacks the ability to see the risks of taking cow
parts and rendering them into meat and bone meal as feed for
the next generation of livestock.
Second, we eat our environment. Food is the result of a complex
system that involves feedback loops, where nutrition is more
important than quantity, where unintended consequences and
unpredictable developments are commonplace. Think drought
or grasshoppers or mealybugs or mad cow disease. We eat in
a complex relationship with creation. The discovery of one
sick cow in Washington drives home just how complex our food
system has become.
Third, consumers are enabled to be more risk-averse because
of the very nature of our modern food system. We tend to be
blasé about the risks that we choose to take. Give
us some control and many of us are risk-takers. Our modern
food system delivers abundant choice, but choice is not a
substitute for control. Choice allows consumers to abandon
any product that has a whiff of risk associated with it.
Industrialization, complexity and choice make one sick cow
a food story.
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