The Medium Is the Monster, <i>by Yang Sang-hoon</i>

      May 07, 2008 10:20

      It was in 1996 that Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human form of BSE or mad cow disease, emerged as a world issue. The risks of mad cow disease have since declined substantially because animal-based feeds have been banned at the source and even the age of cattle is being questioned. While the risk has ebbed greatly in the world over the past decade, the fear of mad cow disease has soared sharply in our society. It cannot but be ascribed to the power of television. The mad cow disease uproar touched off by TV is a TV affair generated by TV and for TV. Creepy mad-cow-disease stories on the Internet are merely a derivative merchandise of TV.

      The day before yesterday I watched the TV news program in question from beginning to the end. Two-thirds of the program were allocated to warnings about mad cow disease. The coverage had two problems: no factual reporting and avoidance of the core of the issue.

      "Some people ask what's the problem in us eating the same beef the Americans eat?" the anchor said. "To be sure, there would be no problems if we ate beef from cattle not 30 months old but less than 20 months old, as is the case in the U.S." He contends that the beef we eat differs from what the Americans eat.

      Meat from cattle judged 30 months old or older at U.S. beef processing factories is mixed with meat from other cattle, after specified risk materials are eliminated. This is judged not to be dangerous. Accordingly, beef from cattle 30 months old or older may go to the U.S. market or anywhere else in the 97 countries that import American beef, including Korea. With 96 percent of U.S. beef being consumed domestically, the quantity of beef from cattle 30 months old or older consumed by Americans must be tens or hundreds of times more than that eaten by Koreans. Should it be possible to discriminate beef from cattle 30 months old or older, no importers would import beef from such cattle which have eaten more feed and are more expensive.

      So long as Americans and Koreans eat the same beef, the core of the mad cow disease issue is narrowed down to if anyone has contracted the disease by eating American beef. No such patients have ever been found in Korea or the U.S. American beef before 1997 came from cattle fed on animal-based feeds, and no data are available as to how old the cattle being processed were then. For the TV report claim that Korean genes are "more vulnerable" to mad cow disease to be convincing, Korea should have had at least one mad cow disease patient now that the latent period of about 10 years is passed. Even Japan, whose people have a gene structure said to be almost identical with ours, has had no mad cow disease patients, though it had as many as 30 cattle affected by the disease. The TV news report did not mention such basic facts at all.

      We have to be cautious about mad cow disease and other illnesses, but there must be a sense of proportion. The death toll from traffic accidents must be thousands or hundreds of thousands of times more than that from mad cow disease. We all fear and are cautious about traffic accidents, but we don't boycott cars because of it.

      What truly matters about the import of U.S. beef is not mad cow disease but the damage to our livestock farming households. We raised the risk of mad cow disease in negotiations with the U.S. in an implicit attempt to reduce our imports of U.S. beef as much as possible for the sake of our livestock farmers. It's not fair for our television media to report that "the government, too, said American beef is dangerous" based on the government's negotiation strategy.

      What was really astonishing in the TV report were the remarks of a middle school student: "I'm grieved at the thought of dying from mad cow disease when I'm still young, have yet to fulfill my dreams, and am just about to start studying." The horrible power that TV wields that can needlessly put a young student into such a state is bloodcurdling.

      I asked a broadcasting official why the TV channels have exaggerated the issue so much. "It would be appropriate to regard it as a skirmish," replied the official. Asked what the main battles are, he cited "KBS restructuring, MBC privatization and broadcasting market opening." The broadcasters are primarily interested in preventing these efforts, and are in effect confronting the Lee Myung-bak administration over them. "The television channels are flexing their muscles in front of the government," he added. If these remarks are true, we'll be seeing more uproars like the mad cow disease one. I hope that won't be the case.
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