Consumers defied Hollywood on BSE impact

Call me late for the party, but I’ve finally got around to watching The West Wing.


The critically acclaimed television drama, which ran from 1999 to 2006, was about the staff of a fictional U.S. president played by Martin Sheen.


It’s a bit old now, but many of the issues the show dealt with 15 years ago are still relevant today and often make for riveting television.


Particularly interesting was an episode from the third season, which among other things dealt with the implications of a potential BSE case in the United States.


Keep in mind that this episode aired Nov. 28, 2001, one and a half years before BSE was discovered in Canada and more than two years before it was found in the U.S.


In the episode, the president and his senior staff are convinced that the country’s beef industry, and all of its economic spinoffs, will collapse if it turns out to be true that BSE is present in American cattle.


In a key scene, the president asks his chief of staff what will happen to the country’s beef supply if the case turns out to be positive.


“Well, FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) will do a Class 1 recall and get it off the shelves,” he says.


“Not that they need to. Nobody’s going to buy beef for a couple years.”


Responds the president: It’s a $150 billion industry. What’s the West going to do for a living?”


CoS: “Well, this generation of ranchers is done. They won’t get back on their feet.… Once we announce a positive, steak houses are done. Fast food is done.”


President: “Any good news?”


CoS: “For fishermen.”


The writers were wrong, of course.


BSE did indeed have devastating consequences for cattle producers, but not because North American consumers stopped eating beef.


In fact, the opposite was true. 


Beef consumption in Canada went up in the months following the catastrophic announcement of May, 20, 2003, as consumers rallied around the country’s beleaguered cattle producers.


This was in sharp contrast to other parts of the world, where consumers avoided the beef counter in droves.


It was a fascinating phenomenon to watch as the BSE crisis unfolded that summer, and remains a curious footnote in the history of this unhappy time.


I’m sure there are sociological and cultural reasons to explain why North American consumers weren’t afraid of what the media still calls mad cow disease, but it caught a lot of people off-guard, including the Hollywood script writers.