This article examines the role of definitional struggles in the science–policy interface using the example of the cattle disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease in the UK. A central contention is that an explicit focus on definition illuminates the processes by which scientific judgements are made, promoted, communicated, assessed and judged and gives an improved picture of policy making. Neglected areas such as the role of secrecy, public relations and the mass media in the science–policy interface are brought into sharper focus as an intrinsic part of the wider operation of definitional struggles. The focus on definitional struggles also sheds light on some current work on risk in social theory. It is argued that the neglect of questions of agency which are central to definitional struggles has led to some theorists presenting risks as inevitable concomitants of technological and cultural developments leaving them in the grip of political quietism.