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Tougher venison processing rules urged

October 9, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Ron Seely
The Medical Society of Milwaukee County is calling for tougher regulation of deer processors this fall because of uncertainties about whether chronic wasting disease can spread to people.

Eleanore Kirsch, executive director of the organization, said the 2,000-member group is recommending the Legislature consider requiring commercial deer processors to follow procedures similar to those mandated in England for beef processors. Those regulations were put in place because of mad cow disease, an illness similar to CWD that infects cattle. A task force of the State Medical Society is considering a similar recommendation, according to Dr. Richard Olds, chairman of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and a member of the task force. Olds also served on the committee that made the recommendation issued Tuesday by the Medical Society of Milwaukee County.

In Europe, where at least 120 people have died from mad cow disease, beef processors are required to use separate saws to remove the head and spinal cords of animals and entirely different equipment must be used to cut up and process the meat.

Larry Clark, who runs the Lodi Sausage Co. and is on the board of the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors, said such regulations are not necessary because deer processors will comply voluntarily with guidelines for handling venison issued by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Those guidelines, Clark said, call for the same procedures used in Europe for beef.

Clark said he will process deer but plans to keep all venison separate from beef and pork. He said he will use separate equipment, including a separate saw.

"We won't even use it on beef," Clark said. "And I've got it labeled that way."

But Olds said a voluntary program isn't sufficient.

"A voluntary program leaves me a little cold," Olds said. "You as a person really are depending on that processor to follow the guidelines. It seems to me you want to know with some certainty that your deer sausage doesn't have deer brains in it."

Olds said the recommendation from the Medical Society of Milwaukee County was made after a survey of research on connections between CWD and human health. Although there are no proven instances of a human contracting CWD, Olds said studies dating back to 1986 show suspicious connections between hunters eating venison and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, the human version of CWD.

Since 1996, according to the position statement from the organization, four cases of CJD have been identified by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in patients under 30 (the fatal disease normally strikes people in their 70s). Three of the individuals had a significant history of eating venison.

The CDC has concluded there is no connection, Olds said. But, he added, additional clusters of CJD cases are still being investigated, including three cases in Wisconsin.

Also, the position statement notes, test tube studies have recently shown that the deformed proteins in deer that cause CWD can convert, at a low level, healthy human proteins into infectious proteins.

"If this is the case," the position statement says, "then at least a small risk of acquiring CWD should be anticipated from ingesting the brains or lymphatic tissue of a deer with CWD."

Olds said state agencies should make hunters aware of such research rather than emphasizing the lack of any human cases of CWD. "I think that gives a false impression," Olds said. "I think there are human health considerations that shouldn't be ignored. And I'm not an alarmist. I wouldn't be chair of medicine here if I were."

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