Medicine And The Media

Meltdown: the media and mad cows

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 30 March 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:854
  1. Tony Delamothe


    Newspapers, whose columnists had been burbling on about the delights of eating British beef only weeks before, cleared their front pages for what they said might be the biggest public health calamity this century. They took their lead from the previous night's television programmes. In successive appearances, an increasingly palefaced Stephen Dorrell reprised his Commons statement of that afternoon (p 795). Professor John Pattison, head of the government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, refused to offer much reassurance other than attributing the 10 new cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) to exposure to affected beef before 1989. (No one probed the plausibility of this attribution hard enough.)

    The opinions of Professor Richard Lacey, who had been consigned to the scientific wilderness for his views on spongiform encephalopathies, were suddenly of interest. But few newspapers could bring themselves to quote his upper estimate of 500000 new cases of CJD a year.

    Thursday was human victims day, with the blurred family snaps of those who had succumbed to CJD staring out from the front pages. One of them was repeatedly referred to as a vegetarian—which he had been at the time of his death—despite his distraught mother telling television audiences the night before that his favourite snack was hamburgers. This “it's all so confusing; even the experts can't agree” line can be reliably depended on to cloud public understanding of any complex scientific issue.

    The Daily Telegraph argued that any alarm should be kept in perspective. “Life is a hazardous business. But among all the hazards we face, eating beef must rank as minor, even after yesterday's news.” …

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