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Governor slams U.S. for delays in deer tests

August 29, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by MEG JONES
Frustrated over foot-dragging by the federal government in approving a quick test for chronic wasting disease, Gov. Scott McCallum on Wednesday criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture for being slow to respond to the crisis in Wisconsin.

In a sharply worded letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, McCallum also called for the USDA to allow private laboratories to test for the deadly ailment that has been found in Wisconsin's wild white-tailed deer population.

As many Wisconsin deer hunters question the safety of eating venison, the governor accused the USDA of taking too long to approve a test that would quickly determine whether an animal has chronic wasting disease.

"Quite frankly, it is way past time for USDA to get off the dime and approve a rapid test for (chronic wasting disease) and to dramatically accelerate the certification of private labs," McCallum wrote.

He added: "I do not believe USDA realizes, or recognizes, that its current policy limiting testing to only state and federal laboratories does not meet our hunters' demands for more testing." The clock is ticking because the bow hunting season begins in less than three weeks, said Darrell Bazzell, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources.

"We recognize that time is getting short and the USDA is really going to have to step up now or it will be too late for this fall's hunting season," Bazzell said.

No one knows how many hunters may decide not to head into the woods this fall because of concerns about the health of deer. That's why testing is a critical issue, since many people will want their deer checked to make sure the meat is safe to eat.

USDA acting cautious

Ed Curlett, a spokesman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is evaluating several reliable rapid tests, said the process of approving a test is not quick because "they have to prove these things work beyond a doubt."

It's unlikely a rapid test will be available for this fall's hunting season, Curlett said Wednesday.

Bazzell and McCallum have been in contact with federal officials for months about the need for additional testing.

In June, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service notified Wisconsin officials that it would certify only state and federal labs to handle chronic wasting disease testing. At the time, there was no lab in the state that performed the test, so all carcass samples from Wisconsin were sent to an Iowa lab.

The Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Madison will begin testing for chronic wasting disease this fall.

The federal agency has contracted with 10 labs across the nation to perform chronic wasting disease testing, including the Madison lab, and is working to bring five more on line by January -- a number it says is sufficient to handle testing.

But critics say the state and federal labs will be able to test only carcasses submitted by the DNR and agencies in other states. That's because the demand by state agencies will push labs to the limit of their capacity. Left out are individual hunters.

To calm hunters' fears, the DNR will test 500 deer in almost every county during the hunting seasons to determine whether chronic wasting disease is elsewhere in the state. So far, 24 deer have tested positive in an area in south-central Wisconsin near Mount Horeb.

But with at least 50,000 deer to be tested this fall just by the state, there are few options for individual hunters who may want to pay to have their deer tested. Last year, more than 440,000 deer were harvested in Wisconsin.

Trying to reassure hunters

The DNR hopes the statewide testing will encourage reluctant hunters to go out to their tree stands this fall.

"With the 50,000 tests, we're going to know whether the disease exists in any county," Bazzell said. "But we won't have those results until the winter, and hunters are telling us they want to see that service sooner so they know their venison is safe."

Scientists say there's no evidence that humans can get sick from eating venison of deer infected with chronic wasting disease, which is similar to mad cow disease. However, the World Health Organization advises people not to eat the brain, tonsils, spinal cord or lymph nodes of deer.

In addition, state health officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating the deaths of three hunters in Barron County who took part in wild game feasts and subsequently died of rare brain diseases -- two of them from the human version of chronic wasting disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob. The feasts featured deer and elk meat, including some from states with chronic wasting disease.

William "Butch" Johnson, a Hayward businessman, plans to market a test for hunters without getting USDA approval. Johnson said he hopes to sell 25,000 tests for $50 to $60 apiece.

"The USDA needs to verify the manufacturers that have their rapid tests in for certification. There's no reason in the world that hasn't taken place yet," Johnson said Wednesday. "It's a waiting game and a lack of urgency on the part of the USDA to go and get the job done."

In his letter to Veneman, McCallum asked the USDA to dramatically accelerate the certification of private labs, including Marshfield Clinic.

State agriculture officials contacted Marshfield Clinic in April to see if it was willing to perform chronic wasting disease tests. The clinic appropriated $400,000 to $600,000 to remodel lab space and buy equipment and is now waiting for approval by the USDA, said Frances Moore, director of the Veterinary Division of Marshfield Laboratories.

"We're happy the governor is asking the same questions of USDA that we've been asking since May," Moore said. "We haven't gotten well-delineated responses from the USDA."

To begin testing, Marshfield Clinic needs control material -- samples of chronic wasting disease -- to determine whether a sample is positive or negative. It must get control material from the USDA.

USDA officials inspected Marshfield Clinic in July for a permit to obtain the control material. The clinic is still waiting for the OK.

"We have the assumption we will have the green light to be testing. Our start date is still in early October," Moore said.

Also on Wednesday, McCallum announced:

-- Four to six listening sessions will be scheduled throughout the state for concerned hunters to talk with animal health and wildlife officials.

-- A system will be developed to track and collect chronic wasting disease tests to be made available to the public, including statistics broken down by county.

-- A chronic wasting disease testing coordinator will be appointed to handle the state's testing efforts.

GOVERNOR'S PLAN

Gov. Scott McCallum's plan for dealing with chronic wasting disease calls for:

-- Appointing a state disease testing coordinator to serve as the top person in government to contact for the state's testing efforts.

-- Obtaining approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a qualified, rapid test for the disease that hunters can use and get the agency to certify additional laboratories that can do the testing.

-- Identifying private laboratories in Wisconsin that could provide testing for the disease.

-- Developing a process for labeling, tracking and collecting samples for testing for the disease and make available to the public all testing data, including statistics broken down by county.

-- Conducting public listening sessions across the state to allow worried hunters to talk directly to animal health and wildlife professionals.

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