Having just returned from a two-day hiatus with my good friends Dick & Phyllis Hoffman, l came back invigorated and, once again, inspired to take a “shot” at the venison issue! My wife and l spent two days at their north woods cabin where we saw deer like we had never seen before. Within about a mile radius we saw hundreds of deer. Some were in groups of fifty or more. It was a sight to behold and a thing of beauty, as they grazed in the lush green fields, protected by the sanctuary of the thickly wooded forest, a refuge of nature’s unbounded creation of beauty.

However, when man intercedes, the intent of creation often becomes tainted. Such is the case when a deer hunter wakes up to a brisk cool 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 intentions into a disaster for many.

With the deer hunting season about to open, it seems appropriate to raise the awareness level of the health risks involved in eating uninspected meat. This is in contrast to inspected meat, which comes under the scrutiny of the federal meat inspection division of the USDA. The FSIS has stepped up its inspection efforts, in the form of HACCP, to ensure the wholesomeness of the meat we eat. But, yet, we seem to have turned a blind eye to the dangers of eating the “fruits of the hunt”. So, before mixing venison with perfectly good beef or pork, consider the consequences!

The number of deer taken in this year’s hunt is still an unknown quantity, but we can be assured that it will run in the millions. It is estimated that more than a million deer will be harvested in just the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. This translates into a huge risk factor when you consider that the average novice has no training in the skills of recognizing potential disease-carrying characteristics. To further compound this with the reckless abandonment of proper meat handling procedures, and the level of risk mounts to death threatening.

The most dangerous of these risks seem to be that of Chronic Wasting Disease, which seems to be threatening, deer herds all over the country. This is causing some well-founded concern and should not be ignored by those in authority to inform and act in a responsible manner.

This may be the wake-up call that will bring some enforcement of the Federal Meat Inspection Service to the woodlands of America.

There are signs of this happening, as most of the country has addressed this issue with a sense of urgency. So much so, there are concerns that declining hunters may jeopardize the battle to control Chronic Wasting Disease in the herd. Keeping the herd size down is important,  as scientists believe that chronic wasting disease is spread by the animal to animal contact. The only way to slow its spread is to reduce numbers.

Great strides have been made to test for the disease, but the response has been slow and accuracy continues to be evaluated. As a warning, be aware that as of this writing, the USDA has notified state officials that it would allow only state and federal labs to test for the disease. There is obviously not enough capacity in those labs to meet the expected demand of individual hunters.

In spite of the fact that experts say there is no scientific evidence the disease can infect humans, hunters are demanding to know whether the deer they kill this fall have the disease. Unfortunately, testing is the only way to find out. But, be aware that affected animals will appear sick (thin, weak and emaciated).

If you think for one moment this is not serious, consider the fact that Chronic Wasting Disease 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 scientific evidence the disease can infect humans, the World Health Organization advise people not to eat any part of a deer with evidence of the disease. And further evidence of major concern is the death of at least five hunters that have died from a very similar illness.

The death of three hunters, two from Wisconsin, one from Minnesota, from brain-destroying illnesses has been under investigation by medical experts who want to know whether Chronic Wasting Disease has crossed from animals into humans, just as mad cow disease did in Europe.

The men knew one another and ate elk and deer meat at wild-game feasts hosted by one of them in Wisconsin a few years ago, all three died. Investigators want to know whether the deaths were just a coincidence, or whether the men contracted their diseases from the meat of the infected game.

A few years ago, a sportsman died in Fort Worth, Texas. Another died in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a third contracted a similar fatal illness in Oklahoma. All three were diagnosed with an extremely rare brain disease. All three had eaten venison. It this just an ominous coincidence, or just another threatening accusation?

The accusation could prove true. The Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is closely related to Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD), which is what killed the hunters. Both CJD and CWD are classified as “transmissible spongiform encephalopathies” (TSE). Diseases do not always make the leap from one species to another, but there is a connection between Chronic Wasting Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jacob that has many scientists concerned.

Another TSE, Bovine Spongiform Chronic Encephalopathy (BSE) spread from cattle to humans in the United Kingdom, where it was referred to as “Mad Cow Disease”. And, we all know the repercussions the beef industry suffered from that incident.

Mad Cow Disease exploded in UK cattle herds in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, but it was not until 1996 that it was found to have crossed over to humans. Since then, nearly 50 people are known to have died in the UK from Mad Cow Disease, but because of its long incubation period, possibly up to twenty years, it may yet kill many more. The disease resulted in European bans on British beef and forced the destruction of more than half the cattle in the UK.

Because of the similarity, CWD has already been nicknamed “Mad Deer Disease,” but it has not yet proved as sinister, in fact, another TSE called “scrapie” has afflicted sheep for at least 250 years and has never been found to cross over to humans. Still, because of Mad Cow Disease, CWD is hitting the hunting world like the unbridled terror of an unscathed wilderness.

Scientists, however, are on the monster’s trail. More than a dozen states and federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in cooperation with the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) are pouring money and resources into a thus-far-quiet, but nevertheless, massive investigation. They are trying to answer two questions: Is CWD killing people and where is CWD?

It may just be a coincidence that those that died had eaten venison or there may be no connection. In fact, it is also known that the venison eaten by the victims, had not come from known infected areas. However, do not know about you, but l am not about to take any unnecessary chances.

Many of the states are taking this problem very seriously. A case in point is the state of Wisconsin, where the DNR ordered the killing of about 25,000 deer a few years ago in a 374 square mile area to try to eradicate the disease from the herd. In addition, the DNR wanted about 500 deer killed in every county to be tested to find out how far the disease has spread in Wisconsin. Another is from the state of Maine where a little girl died from CJD and who had reportedly eaten venison that her father had shot.

There are those that strongly believe that there is no link between Chronic Wasting Disease and the hunters deaths, but warrants a state of caution. The “no-link” thinking is based on the fact that CJD occurs all over the world at a ratio of about one in 1 million people. Each year in the US 250 to 300 people die from CJD, so it is understandable that a few of the victims may have eaten venison.

Meanwhile, APHIS and many state agencies are doing a broader search to discover if CWD can be found outside known infected areas, and to find out how fast it is spreading from the infected area. Since there is no accurate test that can be performed on living animals, scientists are checking brain samples. The samples are collected at deer check stations and meat processors. From there, they are sent to a number of labs for analysis. Colorado and Wyoming each check thousands of samples annually at their own research facilities. Other states such as Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, and Nevada send their samples to the APHIS lab in Ames, Iowa. Now, with the discovery of CWD in Wisconsin and the probability of Minnesota, it is no longer contained in those traditional areas where it has been found in the past.

With these recently discovered outbreaks of CWD have come major concerns from meat processors that have never before contended with this scare. They have fear of contaminating other products and opening themselves up to liabilities never before faced in their business. Processors are being warned not to process the brain or nerve tissues of deer or elk, as researchers say the pathogen that causes Chronic Wasting Disease may be difficult if not impossible to destroy with heat, disinfectants, or medicine.

Both CDC and APHIS efforts are designed simply to get a fix on the situation. Right now, not much can be done to stop or prevent Mad Deer Disease because scientists know so little about it. To get answers, labs worldwide are intensively studying all spongiform encephalopathies. The CDC, for instance, is investigating this group of pathogens at its Prior Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. But, despite the intensive research efforts, answers are slow to come. This information is not intended to raise unfounded fear, rather 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.

In light of the recent conjecture about CWD killing humans, it is easy to overlook these certainties about the disease. It kills deer, CWD is spreading, CWD is always fatal, and CWD has no known cure.

Not a pretty picture, but it is an issue that I’ve been concerned about for many years. Back in my college years at North Dakota State University, l can remember venison being processed that was genuinely unfit for human consumption.

I worked my way through college working for the Meat and Animal Science Department in various capacities. But, the most profitable venue was that of processing deer. In a good long evening, I could process 4 deer at the income rate of $25.00 per head. An income of $100.00 per day was unthinkable back in those days,

so I always enjoyed the false feeling of being rich for at least a few weeks out of the year.

After being married for nearly 50 years, I now realize that it conjures up other false feelings. Living in a trailer house located on campus, just a few blocks from the meat lab, gave my wife an accessible view to see when the lab lights were turned oft. She always made mention of the fact that this was how she knew when to expect me home. I thought she was anxious for me to get home, little did I know it was all about the money. Making the money was a bonus, but seeing the deteriorated condition of deer carcasses was enough to turn me away from venison for the rest of my life. Many would be brought in on the hood of a hot car, warm temperatures, and with the appearance of being eviscerated by a handicapped with pinking shears. Not a very pretty sight and I have since come to realize this presented a potentially hazardous health risk.

Hope this has raised your awareness level of properly handling and processing venison. May all of your hunting experiences be approached with a cautious sense of health risk and a renewed appreciation for what the Federal Meat Inspection service means to the credibility of the meat industry.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was originally published in 2007.