NEW YORK—If you think mad cow disease is an issue that concerns only farmers, beef marketers and people who sell millions of burgers every day, think again. The list of industries that could face difficult questions if mad cows reach American shores includes pharmaceuticals, medical products, dietary supplements and cosmetics in addition to the obvious food producers. Perhaps that’s why Hill & Knowlton this week became the second major agency—Edelman announced the formation of its BSE Task Force two weeks ago—to create a group dedicated to this one issue.

Hill & Knowlton’s new bovine spongiform encephalopothy (BSE) global asset group will bring together experts in crisis communications, issues management and crisis preparedness training, and will focus on monitoring public perceptions of the disease and preparing industry to respond to new incidents in this country and internationally. That preparation includes dealing with regulatory challenges and trade barriers as well as consumer concerns.

“This is a serious issue with a global dimension that is often more about perception then science,” according to Elaine Cruikshanks, a managing director in the Belgium office of Hill & Knowlton and chairman of the firm’s continental European region, and head of the new asset group. “It is evolving at a staggering rate and has a wide range of potentially affected companies.”

That’s because bovine products are used in a wide range of industries, according to Edelman task force leader Dan Puzo, who heads that agency’s food and health practice in Washington, D.C. “It’s surprising how widely these products are used,” says Puzo. “They are in medical products from heart valves to corneal implants; they are used in a lot of pharmaceutical products; they are used in supplements, many of which used ground glandular products; they are even used in some cosmetics.”

The pharmaceutical industry woke up to its potential mad cow problem earlier this year, after media reports that several major drug makers—including American Home Products, Aventis, and GlaxoSmithKline—were using ingredients from cattle raised in countries where there is a risk of mad cow disease. The potentially contaminated ingredients found their way into nine vaccines despite the fact that the Food & Drug Administration first warned the companies about the risk eight years ago.

In the February 5 edition of Barron’s columnist Jim McTague advised readers “to inoculate your portfolio against bovine spongiform encephalopothy,” warning that “mad cow obsession is spreading through our nation’s newsrooms with the consuming intensity of a wind-driven fire. Ironically, the absence of actual cases might keep the story of impending doom alive indefinitely, perhaps helping to engender a mass hysteria similar to that gripping Britain and other parts of Europe.”

The Barron’s article added an investor relations component to a challenge that already includes consumer and public affairs challenges. The H&K group reflects the breadth of issues companies are likely to face, including veteran Washington consultant Frank Mankiewicz and Christina Kaul, a former senior advisor to European Commissioner Franz Fischler.

H&K’s approach will start with risk assessment to identify a company’s exposure to BSE issues, and will provide a familiarization package, including information on the science underlying the disease, how it has been addressed by the media, studies on past efforts of scientists and regulators, and an analysis of the consumer panic that has escalated in Europe and could potentially be repeated in the United States and Canada.  

For each client, the asset group will tailor a strategy to help implement a responsible approach in dealing with mad cow disease and other food-borne threats of illness.
The Edelman Task Force, meanwhile, takes a three-pronged approach, offering research, crisis preparation and issues management support. The team includes Jere Sullivan, who developed a BSE preparedness program for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in the mid-1990s; Puzo, who spent over 20 years covering the food industry as a reporter; Edelman healthcare specialist Peter Segal; Therese Caruso, deputy general manager of food and nutrition in New York; Steve Lombardo and Mary McCarty Early of Edelman’s research subsidiary Strategy One; and Rob Rehg, who directs issues management.