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Mad Cows and Angry Bloggers: A Cautionary Tale

Submitted by Pat on Wed, 06/06/2007 - 8:18am

Why not test every cow in America for BSE (mad cow disease)? That's only common sense, after all. And even if the government's not going to require those tests, certainly they shouldn't forbid tests from a producer who wants to market their beef as being 100% tested. Right?

In fact, that probably makes so much sense to you, you don't even need to bother to read the government's side, to find out why the FDA wants to prohibit that private testing. Surely it's all government double-talk, really designed to either protect Big Beef or hinder private businesses with regulatory red tape (depending on your politics). And if you thought that, and you blogged off a rant about patent government lunacy, you'd be in good company. Prominent bloggers like Glenn Reynolds, Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings, and Justin Gardner of Donklephant all joined in knee-jerk attack on the Administration's position, as did many others. Glenn said: "Ok, this is stupid," and "Do we want China to be our model?" Hilzoy and Gardner took aim at Bush. Hilzoy: "Just when I think I've heard it all, this administration manages to surprise me again." Gardner: "More twisted logic from the administration that keeps me in stitches nearly every single day."

Oops. Even new media bloggers who know better than most about the lapses and failures of old media can still trust an AP reporter's story too much. Thanks to Stuart Buck, we have the real story.

A beef producer in Kansas, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, wants to test all of its cattle for BSE, which causes Mad Cow disease, so that it can market its cattle as 100% BSE-Free. Contrary to the AP report, the government did not argue that this should not be allowed because of a concern for false positives, but because of a concern for false negatives. As the FDA pointed out in court, the average cow in the United States is less than 2 years old when it is slaughtered. But BSE has a 5 year incubation period, and only shows up on the test when the cow is but 2 or 3 months away from displaying symptoms of the disease. Europe only tests animals over 30 months old. Thus, such testing and advertising would mislead consumers, lulling them into a false sense of safety, while in fact the "100% BSE-Free" meat may be anything but. Stuart Buck goes into more details, but that's the gist.

So let this be a cautionary tale to new media. Don't rely on old media to do your fact-checking for you. That goes double for legal cases; Stuart Buck warns of the dangers of trusting anything a journalist says about a legal proceeding, and anyway you should be able to find the source documents quickly and report from them. Government employees aren't as stupid as common myth would have it, and they usually have pretty good reasons for doing what they do. You may or may not agree with the reasons, but there's usually a decent reason. When it looks like they've completely taken leave of their senses, take a couple of deep breaths and look a bit deeper, just in case.

But this should also be a cautionary tale to old media. Take a lesson from how the bloggers have reacted to Stuart's fisking. Both Glenn and Hilzoy have issued prominent retractions. I'm sure Justin Gardner will too, after it's brought to his attention (nobody in his comments has mentioned Stuart Buck's piece yet). But the AP? Nada.

Update: McQ at QandO also demonstrates the difference between old media and new with a prompt and thorough correction of his own. I've been guilty of the same sin before, and likely will be again, so when the time comes, I'll use these retractions as examples of how to do it right!

Update: As I expected, Justin Gardner has posted a similar retraction. Justin also engages in some thought on the merits of the FDA's actual position, and I engage him some on that issue in his comments.

It's faintly amusing if

It's faintly amusing if bloggers - whose distrust of the MSM is practically the (political) blogosphere's raison d'etre - get all credulous when faced with a story that's too good to be true ("too good" compared to their existing views and prejudices).


Yup, admitting it when you are wrong goes a long way. We should all get used to this. Our egos will try to get in the way of the truth if we let them.

Oh, and what about spinach? Are produce distributors going to test every leaf?

Vegetables Nearly as Dangerous as Under-cooked meat

I'm Guilty

I plead guilty to knee jerk reaction over the story. The Bush Administration really got tarred unfairly on this one.

This one they REALLY have to go out and defend. This makes W sound like he doesn't care about kids and their Happy Meals as much as he does meat producers.



For what it's worth, I tend to trust many media sources (obviously not all) on straightforward matters of fact. I try to double-check, in the sense of finding several independent stories on the same topic, but it's not as though I'm going to fly to Baghdad personally to check up on what they say -- when 'what they say' refers to something that is straightforwardly factual. (E.g., "a bomb went off today.") Though sometimes I do hold off when the story is one that lends itself to unclarity and subsequent revision. (E.g., as of this afternoon, it wasn't clear to me what was going on in northern Iraq, with the Turkish troops.)

What happened in this case was that the AP reporter got things wholly and completely wrong, and it wasn't easy to check by looking up the actual court filings, since it wasn't immediately clear what the case name would be, and I'm not a lawyer and so this stuff isn't second nature to me. Also, on previous occasions, when I've tried to search for a case given only the name of one party, my searches turned up a lot of cases, and it costs me money to search through each one.

Stuart Buck's piece made it a lot clearer what the case name would be, which enabled me to go get the court filings and check it out for myself. That was the crucial thing.

Hey, Hilzoy!

Thanks for stopping by. One of my pet peeves with reporting of legal cases is that the reporters so often fail to include the full name of the case or docket numbers or just something that would allow one to do further research. On big stories, major papers these days tend to link to source documents (the Washington Post is usually pretty good at that), but even for text-only AP reports, it wouldn't take but a few more words to give the full name of the case. With that, it would be so much, much easier to do further research.

At any rate, I thought your correction, like others', was a class act, especially since I know you are no fan of this administration.

Echo on the class act. In

Echo on the class act. In the blogosphere, class is much under-appreciated (and oft-rare) so it's even more appreciated in my book.


Agreed on all points. I too find it enormously frustrating when a news story fails to mention the case name or even the district court (i.e., "a federal court in Florida ruled Tuesday . . . " --but is that the Northern, Middle, or Southern district?).

It's even more egregious

It's even more egregious when it's an online edition of the newspaper and the ruling's available online - if the court's published a PDF of the decision, it takes so little work to link to it.

Hi, Stuart...

Thanks for stopping by. We got some good traffic piggy-backing off your excellent analysis! ;-)

I dropped you a couple of e-mails yesterday, by the way.

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