M-RCBG Faculty Working Paper No. 2013-16

Risk Regulation Lessons from Mad Cows

Joseph Aldy and W. Kip Viscusi

November 2013

ABSTRACT

The mad cow disease crisis in the United Kingdom (U.K.) was a major policy disaster. The government and public health officials failed to identify the risk to humans, created tremendous uncertainty regarding the human risks once they were identified, and undertook a series of policies that undermined public trust. In contrast, the mad cow disease risk never became a major problem in the United States (U.S.). The lead time that the U.S. had in responding to the disease that was first identified in the U.K. assisted in planning the policy response to avert a crisis. The absence of a comparable U.S. crisis, however, does not imply that the U.S. risk management approach was a success. Until recently, there was no systematic assessment of the domestic risks of mad cow disease. Moreover, U.S. government agencies have never undertaken a comprehensive assessment of the benefits and costs of any U.S. regulation dealing with mad cow disease. The absence of a sound economic basis for policy is reflected in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ill-considered decision to prohibit the private testing of beef for mad cow disease. This decision disadvantaged companies that sought such testing in order to comply with foreign testing regulations. In the absence of such testing, U.S. beef exports plummeted. One company that attempted to implement a testing program launched a legal challenge to the USDA prohibition and thus far has been successful. The policy failures in both the U.K. and the U.S. provide several lessons for regulating invasive species risks and dealing with emerging risks more generally. We conclude with a series of ten public policy lessons for dealing with similar emerging risks.

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