It's arguably the biggest news story of the past century — the case of a single U.S. dairy cow of Canadian origin infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Overnight it shut down 95% of a $3.5-billion export market for U.S. beef and left thousands of beef producers wondering what would happen to their livelihood.

Late afternoon on Dec. 23, 2003, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman made the announcement that a cow in Washington state had tested presumptive positive for the fatal brain-wasting disease. Almost 40 countries shut their borders to U.S. beef exports over the next few days.

Within 15 minutes of Veneman's announcement, the president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), Eric Davis, and several staff members, including CEO Terry Stokes and Chandler Keys, vice president of government affairs, held a media teleconference to respond to the news and to answer questions.

“As I recall, there were more than 100 media representatives on that call following the secretary's announcement,” says Davis, a cattle producer from Bruneau, ID.

Because of the holidays, NCBA offices were understaffed. Scheduled to be closed for a week, NCBA's offices, unlike those of some other industry organizations, remained open as people scrapped holiday plans and headed back to work.

“I was at the grocery store around 1 or 2 p.m. when I got the call saying, ‘We have a situation? Where are you? Can you come to the office?’” says Kim Essex, NCBA executive director of public relations. “Shortly after that, we gathered to discuss the next steps needed to be taken. Then, we got on the USDA call to hear the news.”

Crisis Management

U.S. beef is safe to eat. That's the message NCBA and its state affiliates worked overtime to deliver to U.S. consumers. It wasn't a hollow message. The science proved it.

“We felt we had to be very visible early in the process by talking to the media. We wanted to be very open, transparent and make sure the beef industry was out there with an accurate message before the anti-meat groups could jump all over it,” says Rick McCarty, NCBA executive director of issues management.

The crisis response was funded by checkoff dollars. NCBA is contracted with the Cattlemen's Beef Board (see sidebar on page 28) to handle crisis management.

A total of eight media teleconferences followed important USDA announcements on the BSE issue. From 50 to 90 media participated in each call.

Their questions ranged from the simple “Where did the cow come from?” to the more complex “Why should American consumers be confident in U.S. beef?”

On Dec. 31, NCBA's Executive Committee passed two interim resolutions. The first directed elected officers to use their best judgment in response to the facts of the ongoing BSE investigation. The second offered support for USDA's actions.

“We stressed the need to base our response on facts and science, to support our producers with the best information we could give them, and to support government agencies in the investigation and the rules that would result,” Davis says.

It wasn't easy to keep up with all the media requests for interviews, says Sara Goodwin, NCBA associate director of public relations. But, officers and staff worked overtime to accommodate as many requests as possible.

“We had people on call on Christmas and New Year's days, and we got a few calls on those days,” Goodwin says. “We even got a media call from The Wall Street Journal on Christmas Day.”

Beef industry leaders worked 14- to 16-hour days to keep up with the volume of requests. This included every weekend for the first month after the announcement.

Essex estimates NCBA offices in Denver and Washington, D.C., handled more than 200 media calls each week in the 14 days following USDA's announcement. Those numbers don't include similar efforts by state beef councils and state associations.

For the Washington D.C., office, handling all the interview requests was a challenge as there were only four people in the office between Christmas and New Year's Day.

“We'd lost about half our staff to holiday plans before the announcement was made, and Chandler (Keys) decided he wasn't going to ask people to change their holiday plans,” says Karen Batra, NCBA director of public affairs. Instead, Batra says she took interview requests and coordinated three senior staff people — Keys; Gregg Doud, NCBA chief economist; and Gary Weber, executive director of regulatory affairs — for interviews.

“We have all the bureaus and major networks here in Washington,” Batra says. “A big focus of what we were doing in those early days was network news.”

Using The Internet

But, teleconferences and media interviews weren't the only tools used to communicate with the public. NCBA's Joint Information Committee has built crisis plans over time to handle major issues such as BSE, foot-and-mouth disease and E. coli O157:H7.

McCarty says NCBA staff, at membership's direction, had been gathering scientific information on BSE for years. That archived information served as the basis of content for the checkoff-funded Web site — www.BSEinfo.org. A panel of leading scientists reviews the Web site periodically to confirm the content's scientific validity.

The site was a major component of the NCBA's crisis communications effort.

“We knew we wouldn't be able to fill every media interview, but on that site there was a statement from CEO Stokes, and lots of live information,” McCarty adds.

One Voice

The BSE crisis proved the wisdom of the single, beef-industry voice created some eight years ago by the merger of the National Cattlemen's Association and the National Livestock and Meat Board into NCBA.

“Before the merger, the industry was fragmented; we had no single voice. We didn't have the infrastructure or the coordination 20 years ago to address a BSE episode,” says Walt Barnhart, NCBA director of trade media.

“It points out the wisdom of the long-range plan and the merger, which was to have one voice, one plan and one budget focused on an industry long-range plan,” Davis adds. “Producers have themselves to thank for it. They built it, not only with their dues and checkoff dollars, but with their moral support and offers to help in the time of crisis.”

Checkoff Pays Off

It's ironic that, with the beef checkoff's future very much in question these days, it served as the industry's major tool in minimizing BSE's impact on consumer demand and confidence in beef.

Shortly after the USDA announcement of BSE in Washington state, the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB) activated $1 million from its issues-management crisis fund. An additional $320,000 was also approved from unused funds.

The money beefed up efforts in beef promotion, public relations and issues management to reassure beef consumers.

“The loss of export markets meant we had extra tonnage to work through domestically,” says Nelson Curry, CBB chairman and a Paris, KY, producer. “We used some of the dollars to increase promotion, specifically print, radio and television advertising, primarily around the week preceding the Super Bowl.”

NCBA also surveyed consumer confidence to track consumer awareness of the BSE issue and its effect on consumer confidence in U.S. beef products.

“We found that consumer confidence rose over that timeframe to almost 87% from the previous survey conducted,” Curry says. “That response is almost unheard of in the midst of a food safety crisis. It means consumers, after hearing the industry's message, actually increased their confidence in our product.”

Such confidence hasn't occurred overnight, however, Curry points out. The groundwork was laid, using checkoff dollars days, weeks, even years before.

“The checkoff does so many things on a day-to-day basis. Part of it is marketing, part is research and part is issues management,” says Chandler Keys, NCBA vice president of public policy in Washington, D.C. “The checkoff is like an insurance policy. You pay the premium and when you need it, the investment comes back to you in spades.”

Keys adds that NCBA members' dues dollars, in addition to checkoff dollars, help ensure that programs are in place and ready to activate when appropriate.

“That calls for coordination, collaboration and cooperation to hold these entities together,” Keys adds. “If you don't have a checkoff program, if you don't have a national program with dues money coming in on a daily basis to keep that infrastructure together, it will be very difficult to handle a crisis because you won't have a vehicle to jump on when you need a ride.”