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New regs for deer butchers

October 10, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Frazen
We understand the state's reluctance to add to its oversight duties by expanding its regulation of the deer-processing industry, but given the seriousness of the threat posed by chronic wasting disease, maybe it's time to set aside that squeamishness. Especially considering that both the Medical Society of Milwaukee County and at least some butchers of deer carcasses favor such a move.

Under current regulations, meat plants that process venison during the deer season must follow state rules. But the regulations don't cover all those folks who, in basements and garages around the state, butcher carcasses for themselves and their friends, relatives and neighbors. The medical society considers that lack of oversight to be a bad situation, and we're inclined to agree.

"I don't think that it is unreasonable, in a state that regulates hairdressers and virtually all aspects of the food industry, to regulate deer processing," said G. Richard Olds, an infectious disease expert and chairman of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Indeed, it makes sense to provide stricter oversight of a practice that could affect the health of so many people in Wisconsin.

Donna Gilson, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said the state would be unlikely to seek the authority to regulate all deer processing unless there was scientific evidence that chronic wasting disease can jump from deer to humans.

She's right that there isn't such scientific evidence now. But the disease already has made two species jumps, from sheep to deer and from deer to elk. Maybe it will never make another one. But it also was once believed that mad cow disease, a relative of chronic wasting disease, could not be transmitted to humans. That belief turned out to be wrong.

What the medical society is asking is that the state adopt the same rules for deer processing that England imposed on its beef industry. That seems like a fairly reasonable request, especially since such regulation would cover not only chronic wasting disease, but other health threats as well.

At least some state butchers agree. Butchers have been asking for more state guidelines on how to cut up deer carcasses since the disease was discovered here last winter. The state finally did issue some recommendations, but that's not the same as providing regulations that would reassure hunters and butchers alike.

The state, which is appropriating an additional $2 million to fight the disease, wants deer hunters to turn out in numbers larger than ever this season to eliminate all deer in a portion of southwestern Wisconsin and significantly thin the herd throughout the state. The hope is that such a slaughter will slow the spread of the disease.

But some hunters are nervous -- the purchase of hunting licenses is down 22% -- and some butchers are equally unsettled. If hunters don't kill deer, some butchers could suffer significant losses. But if butchers are unwilling to carve up deer carcasses, even fewer hunters might show up for the hunt.

That's a pretty vicious cycle that the state could -- and should -- break by providing the necessary regulations to assure everyone that venison is a safe product.

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