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Butchers May Be Spreading
Mad Deer Disease to Humans

Aug. 28, 2002
Venison butchers may have spread wasting disease to deer hunters
BY JOHN FAUBER, MARK JOHNSON AND RICK ROMELL

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

TOWN OF BLUE MOUNDS, Wis. - KRT NEWSFEATURES

(KRT) - During last November's deer hunt, moonlighting meat cutters hired by
Dick's Quality Meats worked into the night to keep up with the carcasses
brought in by area hunters.

The trade was so brisk that by the end of each day, the blade on the shop's
band saw often was worn out. It had cut, lengthwise, through the spines of
as many as 80 deer. And after each cut, the same blade also carved off
steaks and chops from each of the animals.

Located a few miles west of Mount Horeb, the deer processing shop is in the
zone where chronic wasting disease was discovered this year, the first time
the deadly neurological disorder has been found in wild deer east of the
Mississippi River.

The disease, which is related to "mad cow" disease, is thought to be caused
by rogue infectious agents known as prions that accumulate in the animal's
brain, lymph nodes, spleen and spinal cord - the very area sliced into by
the band saw at Dick's Quality Meats and other butchers.

Last fall, state-regulated butcher shops such as Dick's Quality Meats and
numerous smaller, unregulated deer processors had no way of knowing that
chronic wasting disease had moved into Wisconsin. Now, their deer-processing
practices are in the spotlight because of the potential for spreading prions
from diseased nerve tissue to meat that may be consumed by hunters and their
families.

Prions, a type of misfolded protein, are resilient agents that can't be
destroyed through normal cooking or sterilization measures. When doctors
perform autopsies on people who died of a prion disease related to chronic
wasting - Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - they wear double gloves, gowns, masks
and eye shields.

"You don't want this stuff landing in your eye," said Patrick Bosque, a
neurologist and prion researcher at the Denver Health Medical Center and the
University of Colorado.

Stronger disinfectants and higher temperatures than normally used in
hospitals are needed to sterilize their instruments.

There has not been a documented case of the deer disease jumping to humans,
but some health officials say there is reason for concern.

Domestic animals such as cows, sheep and pigs must be inspected while the
animal is alive and again after it has been slaughtered. That's not true of
wild game.

"There is no inspection of those animals," said Terry Burkhardt, director of
the state's Bureau of Meat Safety and Inspection.

What's more, some of the butchers who will be processing Wisconsin deer this
fall said that so far they had received little, if any, guidance from the
government about what to do.

Richard Dickman, owner of Dick's Quality Meats, said no state official or
meat inspector had told him what precautions he should take.

"I'm probably one of the biggest processors around here," said Dickman, who
has processed deer for more than 40 years. "I've got no answers."

Tim Williams, a meat cutter and sausage-maker at Mark's Meats, a large,
Minneapolis-area deer processor that handles animals from Wisconsin, wants
answers, too. Federal meat inspectors are in his plant almost daily, but
none has been able to tell him what to do about deer.

"I'm upset about it," Williams said. "This (chronic wasting disease) has
been around since 1967. For them to say they can't offer some guidance is
ludicrous."

Burkhardt said his office had mailed a list of "common-sense precautions for
handling and processing deer" to 350 state-licensed meat plants. The
precautions also have been posted on the Web site of the state Department of
Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

But the state doesn't license all meat plants, only those that sell their
products within Wisconsin. Plants that sell meat out of state and also
process deer take their direction from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although the USDA has no guidelines for processing wild deer and elk, the
agency is preparing instructions for inspectors at plants that handle farmed
deer and elk.

"That's working its way through the channels," said Matt Baun, a spokesman
for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Yet another group of deer processors, grocery stores and other retail food
establishments is regulated by the state, or in some cases by city or county
health departments acting on behalf of the state.

Finally, there are some deer processors that aren't regulated at all.

No license is needed for someone who does nothing but process wild deer, and
such businesses - many of them small, temporary operations - appear to be
common. Randy Davis, a 60-year-old Dodgeville resident, restores classic
cars, but for a couple of weeks during the hunting season, he puts a sign on
his property advertising deer processing.

Davis sets up shop in his two-car garage. Using a band saw, grinder and
knives, he carves up between 100 and 200 deer a year. He, too, cuts through
the spinal cord. Afterward, he cleans his equipment with soap, water and
disinfectant.

"Thing about it is, soap doesn't kill this wasting disease," he said.

Davis said he may change his practices or even stop butchering altogether
because of chronic wasting disease.

How many other deer processors operate out of garages or other makeshift
shops in Wisconsin isn't clear.

"I have no idea how much of that goes on, although I think it's quite
frequent," said Ken Bisarek, executive secretary of the Wisconsin
Association of Meat Processors.

One thing that must stop, according to infectious disease experts, is the
practice of using the same blade to cut through both nerve tissue and meat.

"I can't think of any worse procedure to do," said Dennis Maki, a professor
of medicine and head of the Section of Infectious Disease at the University
of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics' Center for Trauma and Life Support.

G. Richard Olds, an infectious disease expert and chairman of medicine at
the Medical College of Wisconsin, said knives and saws that cut through
nerve and other tissue that may harbor prions should never be used to cut
meat.

"That's just what we have to stop," Olds said.

Based on information learned from reporters, Dickman and Williams said they
planned to stop the practice.

Last season, Dickman's deer operation, which is separate from his meat
market in Mount Horeb, processed between 1,000 and 1,200 deer. Most came
from the area that now is part of what has become known as the eradication
zone - the area where the state Department of Natural Resources is trying to
eliminate all deer in an attempt to clear out all the infected ones.

Williams' plant processed about 800 deer last year, including about 100 from
Wisconsin.

---

In Black Earth, meanwhile, meat processor Michael Danz welcomes government
advice, but he hasn't simply been waiting for it.

Instead, the owner of Black Earth Meats, an eight-employee slaughtering,
processing and retail operation that handles both livestock and game, has
done his own research and has hammered out a detailed plan for processing
deer. He's had good reason to do so.

A 34-year-old hog farmer, Danz bought Black Earth Meats just 18 months ago.
Then he found himself in the heart of the chronic wasting disease zone.

"I thought, boy, what luck - first year opening a locker plant and then be
right in the middle of the circle," he said. "I had a lot of sleepless
nights."

Deer are crucial to Black Earth Meats. Revenue from the 500 processed last
year made up about 30 percent of the business' overall sales. And deer
processing is particularly profitable.

"If we had no deer season, it would be really hard to keep this place open,"
Danz said.

But as important as deer processing is to his business, he said he would
abandon it immediately if scientific research found that it wasn't safe.

Danz's plan for the coming hunt includes removal of deer heads outside the
plant, avoiding spinal cuts, soaking knives overnight in bleach, and using a
coding system that will allow hunters to later check if their animal was
healthy or diseased.

Such an approach makes sense, said Glenn Schmidt, a professor of animal
sciences at Colorado State University who has conducted research into
detection of central nervous system tissue in meat products.

"That's about as thorough as you can be," Schmidt said after hearing a
detailed description of Danz's plan.

Some state processors likely will receive guidance soon from the Wisconsin
Association of Meat Processors.

Bisarek said the organization would recommend that processors not cut
through the spinal cord or bones, or into the brain cavity. Heads should be
moved away from the processing area, and equipment should be cleaned with a
chlorine sanitizer such as bleach, he said.

But some scientists advocate stricter measures.

Pierluigi Gambetti, director of the National Prion Disease Pathology
Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said
all deer should be tested for chronic wasting disease before any processing
is done.

"There is no way around it," he said. "Nobody should touch that meat unless
it has been tested."

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