Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Newspapers move US mad cow story off front pages

By Bob Burgdorfer
Tue Mar 14, 2006 3:16 PM ET

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Mad cow disease is no longer front-page news at many leading newspapers. which put stories of the latest U.S. case on the inside of Tuesday's editions.

One exception was financial newspaper The Wall Street Journal, which ran a one-paragraph notice of the story in its "What's News" summary of important items on page 1 and carried the story on page 2.

The move off the front pages appears to support the U.S. beef industry's claims that consumers are not as concerned as they had been that the disease is a threat to the food supply. Also, the industry claims that as consumers learn more about the disease they gain confidence in the safety measures being taken.

However, economists warned that the government must remain vigilant in testing for mad cow and safeguarding the food supply because consumer confidence is fickle and could quickly change for the worse.

The U.S. Agriculture Department on Monday said a 10-year-old beef cow in Alabama tested positive for the disease. The two previous U.S. cases were in Washington state in December 2003 and in Texas in June 2005.

"The focus right now is on avian flu. Mad cow has taken a back seat," said Harry Baumes, an agricultural economist at Global Insight, an economics information analysis services firm.

Avian flu, or bird flu, is spreading overseas and has killed about 100 people. It has never been found in the United States, but U.S. leaders are preparing for its possible arrival.

USA Today ran a short story entitled "Agriculture Dept. confirms 3rd case of mad cow" across five columns on page 9 of the front section. It ran a short bird flu story on page 6.

The New York Times ran its mad cow story across five columns on page 19 of the main section, but it had a notice on page 2 that guided readers to the story.

The Chicago Tribune ran its mad cow story as a short one-column story on page 6 in an "Across The Nation" summary.

The Washington Post ran a news service version of the story across the top of page 3 and the Los Angeles Times ran the story across four columns on page 17 of the main section.

The first U.S. mad cow case in December 2003 scored much larger media coverage and generated attention overseas, as foreign buyers quickly banned U.S. beef. Since then the reactions have been considerably more subdued.

"The bottom line for consumers remains the same: Your beef is safe," the National Cattlemen's Beef Association declared on Monday after the latest case was announced.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday said it has received far fewer calls from the news media regarding the latest case than it did on the first two cases.

"I can certainly tell you there were a great deal of calls after those two cases were announced. After this one you are my first call," CDC spokesman Dave Daigle told Reuters.

While Daigle could not say if consumer concerns regarding the disease had diminished, he said the drop-off in calls from the news media would indicate a lessening of interest.

"That is one of the factors that would play into consumer concerns," he said.

Cattle traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange also appeared to have lost interest in the disease. The CME April cattle contract closed down 0.525 cent at 83.100 cents per lb on Tuesday, but traders blamed the selling on technical factors rather than the mad cow news.

Cattle futures had started the session -- the first trading since the latest case was announced late on Monday -- higher.

Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a fatal brain wasting disease in cattle. It is believed humans can contract a similar fatal disease by eating infected parts from contaminated cattle.

CDC's Daigle said there has never been a human case of the disease in the United States.

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