The following is an email from an avid reader that takes exception to my stance on deer hunting:
Subject: Recent article on deer hunting
An interesting biased article you wrote about meat contamination in U.S. processing plants. Should all the hunters I know bring their harvested deer to a licensed butcher and retrieve their meat wrapped on plastic trays?
This is organic, lean red meat, unlike your one pound chubs most likely contaminated with growth hormones and numerous antibiotics.
(35 years deer hunting and still going)
I respectfully acknowledge his point of view. I appreciate his enthusiasm for the sport – however, I still feel compelled to raise the awareness level of the risks involved.
Food safety issues have been on the forefront of headline news recently, and indeed, it is a timely subject in the midst of the deer-hunting season. It seems that food safety is a primary concern to everyone, and yet, we hunt with reckless abandonment. Why the difference in mindset from modern conventional food processing to that of primitive handling of venison?
Every year at this time, I’ve written about this subject. It draws attention to the USDA’s meat inspection program and generates a lot of interest from readers. Taking a shot at careless hunters seems to hit a nerve that avid hunters would rather ignore.
But it is unnerving to realize that there are those that will throw caution to the wind at the expense of putting themselves and others in harm’s way. The mishandling of the meat can be more dangerous than that of misfiring the gun.
It’s not hard to understand a hunter’s passion for the sport, as it feeds the innate instincts of man like none other. It represents the unbounded natural creation of beauty and survival of man. Is there anything more beautiful than the sight of deer grazing in lush green ﬁelds, protected by the sanctuary of thickly wooded refuge? However, we also know that when man intercedes, the intent of creation can also become tainted. Such is the case when a deer hunter wakes up to a brisk, crisp morning with a spring in his step and a loaded muzzle in his hands. It’s the kind of unbridled caution that will turn the best of times and intention into a disaster for many.
The tragedies associated with hunting are usually gun related, and not much thought is ever given to the risk of tainted meat. The potential for disaster is much more significant from that of eating meat that isn’t wholesome than it is from being accidentally hit by a stray bullet.
When you consider all of the safeguards that have been put in place by the Federal Food and Drug Administration to make the meat we eat safe for human consumption, is it any wonder that uninspected venison could be a potential health risk?
This isn’t a scare tactic. It is merely a statement of caution to make you aware of taking every precaution to keep your venison wholesome.
To do this, just keep it clean—keep it dry—keep it cold, and keep it healthy.
These seem like common sense steps to take for peace of mind and the assurance of a favorable hunting outcome. I can personally attest to all of these ‘cardinal rules’ of hunting being broken. I worked my way through college working in the University Meat Lab of NDSU, and I can remember deer being brought in on the hood of a hot car, warm temperatures, and the appearance of being eviscerated with a pinking shears.
Not only was this meat unﬁt for human consumption, but it had also deteriorated beyond the point of health determining characteristics being recognizable. In spite of my desperation for earning additional income, I often refused to process deer that was in such an emaciated condition. To this day my taste for venison has waned — kind of like the milk on the farm that was ﬂavored/contaminated by the farm cat, ﬂies, and barnyard excrement. Like tainted venison, it is an image that I can’t erase from my mind.
Whereas the dairy industry addressed their food safety issues, the venison images haven’t changed a lot throughout the years.
Without the accessibility of state or federal meat inspection, it behooves the hunter to take every possible precaution to assure the safety of the meat he is going to put on the table for his family. Not to do so is like watching a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode. Do your due-diligence, look for every visible sign of a vibrant, healthy animal, follow the rules of proper meat handling procedures, and have your venison processed by a reputable meat processor.
If the deer exhibits visible signs of an unhealthy condition (i.e., thin, emaciated, listless, glassy-eyed, rough hair coat, etc.) stop right there! Don’t attempt to process the animal any further! Follow the cardinal rules of handling (i.e., clean, dry, cold, etc.) and contact a processor that is aware of and practices the protocol of inspection, (i.e., glands, spine and brain tissue, etc.) The proﬁcient lay inspection will give you peace of mind.
Inspection is an integral part of processing, but the assurance of wholesomeness goes beyond the protocol of visibility. It includes proper trimming of contaminated and mutilated parts and removing any lead fragments. Unlike the processing of other red meat, don’t be concerned about yield. Take every precaution to assure wholesomeness.
To turn a prejudiced eye translates into a huge risk factor when you consider the average novice has no training in the skills of recognizing potential disease-carrying characteristics, nor proper meat processing procedures.
These are disconcerting issues for which many ignore. But health issues such as Chronic Wasting Disease may be the wake-up call that will give venison inspection its due diligence. CWD is a fatal brain disease that is found to be spreading in deer and elk across this entire country. Although experts say there is no speciﬁc evidence the disease can infect humans, the World Health Organization advises people not to eat any part of a deer with proof of the disease.
As further evidence of significant concern is the death of at least ﬁve hunters that have died from a very similar illness. These are extreme cases, but the tainted meat of any kind that causes disease can be life-threatening.
Unfortunately, venison is subject to more extreme conditions than that of most any other meat.
This information is not intended to raise unfounded fear. Instead, it is to inform you about the health risks of red meat when due diligence is ignored and to further embrace and support the Federal Meat Inspection Program. It points out that this program is vital to the welfare of the meat industry, or it would go untamed, suffering the ramiﬁcations of venison, which at best, is indisputably unsettling.
Not a pretty picture, but it is an issue that I‘ve been concerned about since my years in the meat lab at NDSU. As you may remember, it became a personal crusade for me about ten years ago, when I took on the entire meat industry. The column I wrote, entitled “The Meat Industry Is Sick And Getting Sicker” struck a chord that got the attention of the USDA and every cow processor in the country. (You can read “The Meat Industry Is Sick And Getting Sicker” at the Farm And Livestock Directory’s website at www.farmandlivestockdirectory.com – search ‘Knightro Hunting’.)
This was a definite sentiment to express out loud to an industry that represented my bread and butter. But I was sick and tired of the self-centered greed of attempting to market livestock that wasn’t ﬁt for human consumption. I was referring to sick animals that should never have left the farm, the kind you wouldn’t think of putting in your deep-freeze.
To make a long story short, the Federal Meat Inspection Division of the USDA initiated policy changes that no longer allow down cows to be slaughtered under any condition. This has changed the cull cow procurement business dramatically, and it has reduced the chances of meat from a potentially sick or ambient animal from entering the food chain.
How is it that we go from such stringent regulations to that of wild game being unregulated? Should the hunt come under similar inspection regulations for the protection of all concerned?
Should venison that isn’t scrutinized, regulated, or inspected be given to food shelves? Should the most vulnerable of society be put at such risk?
These and other questions referenced by this column will continue to be answered as per your request.