When a new case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was reported by the media last week, the headlines weren’t too bad.

“They may even be accused of being fair and accurate,” quipped Janie Gabbett, executive editor of Meatingplace, who addressed the Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit on Wednesday. Meatingplace is a publication for the meat-processing industry.

Gabbett contrasted BSE coverage with the more sensational reports accompanying the pink slime controversy a month earlier.

She offered these explanations:

  • Journalists who have been around since 2003, when the first case of BSE occurred in the U.S., were already educated on BSE.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture came out with an explanation faster on BSE than pink slime. In fact, Gabbett said, it took USDA 10 days to comment on pink slime or lean finely textured beef (LFTB).
  • BSE was seen as something that happened to an industry, whereas LFTB was seen as something that occurred because of the industry.
  • With BSE, there was no appearance of “hiding something” from the public, she said.

“USDA did a lot of things right that first day,” she added. Among other things, USDA released a video of its chief veterinarian, John Clifford, explaining the BSE situation and the fact there was no threat to the food supply.

One negative, however, was that nine out of 10 headlines referred to it as "mad cow" rather than BSE, she said.

Applying the lessons learned from these two incidents, Gabbett offered this advice for handling future stories of concern to consumers:

  • Know your science.
  • Be able to tell your story.
  • Offer a same-day response.
  • Know who to tell it to.
  • Know how to tell it online.
  • Offer images.
  • Offer experts.
  • Be transparent.

“Tell your story early, tell your story often, and tell it before someone else does,” Gabbett said.