Canada’s beef-is-safe campaign, circa 2003

The main purpose of this post is to put up a neat graph from my Masters thesis project seven years ago, mostly because I want to refer to it elsewhere. Please read on for the backstory, or if you are interested in political rhetoric about science (or to see a pic of Jean Chretien gnawing on beef).

Who was being quoted on the health risk of BSE in Canadian beef in Canada's national newspapers, May 21-Aug. 13, 2003. Coverage continued for months but scientists stopped getting quoted. The y-axis is the proportion (%) of sources in each category quoted in each time period. (Johnson, 2004)

My thesis was on risk communication, using mad cow disease as a case study. I looked at the language and sources used in news articles to discuss the safety of Canadian beef after Canada’s first mad cow was found in May 2003.

I remember that day vividly. It was my first summer at CBC, and I was interning at Quirks & Quarks in Toronto.

As soon as the news broke across the wires, producers from The Current in the next room were buzzing about what to put on tomorrow’s show. Quirks, a weekly show, was deciding what people would want to know by Saturday about it. As It Happens was also chasing experts on the topic. The name on everyone’s lips was Dr. Neil Cashman, a Canadian neuroscientist who specializes in prion diseases, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease.

As the summer progressed, BSE remained a major national story, mostly because the U.S. had banned Canadian beef, leaving cattle producers without a major source of income. There was a huge SARS benefit concert in Toronto that summer, but I remember dubbing it “Beef-stock” because of the amount of Canadian beef promotion, including a city block-long aisle of BBQ. I wrote about it at the time:

Veteran comedians Dan Ackroyd and Catherine O’Hara weren’t even trying to be funny when they sat down between acts to eat Ontario and Alberta beef in front of the crowd of half a million spectators. ‘Mmmm, this is great Canadian beef,’ Ackroyd said between bites. ‘I just can’t decide which type of great Canadian beef I like better!’

Trust us, we have science

Then-prime minister Jean Chretien, in an AP photo from May 21, 2003, the day after the news broke. The original caption read: "Jean Chretien shows that Canadian beef is safe by eating it for lunch on Wednesday." (AP)

Then-prime minister Jean Chretien, in an AP photo from May 21, 2003, the day after the news broke. The original caption read: “Jean Chretien shows that Canadian beef is safe by eating it for lunch on Wednesday.” (AP)

What does this all have to do with risk communication or my Masters work?

Well, I’d noticed that, as the story progressed, people were still talking about science and health risk, but they were no longer talking to scientists about it. Politicians, cattle producers, and yes, celebrities had taken the media stage to promote Canadian beef.

So I decided to look at whether that gut feeling had any backing to it, with a content analysis of the mad cow coverage in the two national newspapers, the Globe and Mail and National Post. I tracked a few things, including what each story was about, who was quoted making claims about health risk, and whether those claims had any caveat of uncertainty. (They should have, because a lot was unknown about the disease or how prevalent it was on Canadian farms).

The story shifted over time, understandably, from the question of risk to the general public (very low) to one of political and economic impact. But those politicians and industry groups were still making claims about science and health risk, with little mention of uncertainty. Here’s a representative quote from the then-minister of health, Anne McLellan:

“I think we have the science now to make a scientific case for the Americans to lift the importation ban.”

So what? Well, at the time I was trying to make a point about risk communication, and, of course, finish my degree.

Here’s what I get out of it now. There’s nothing wrong with politicians and lobby groups talking about science — let’s hope they’re using some evidence to make decisions.

But, science is a process, not an outcome. And it’s a process that gains credibility (and power) by laying out uncertainties and the evidence to support its conclusions. In this kind of rhetoric, speakers end up using the word “science” to borrow that credibility without earning it by doing either of those things.


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