Hunger Task Force rejects gifts of venison

May 21, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by John Fauber
Because of concerns about a deadly brain disease found in Wisconsin's deer heard, the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee said Monday it no longer will accept donated venison from hunters.

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the organization, said fears about chronic wasting disease prompted the organization to request a written statement from the Department of Natural Resources that venison was safe to eat.

"They weren't able to provide us with that," Tussler said.

The organization received about 2,500 pounds of donated venison last year. Tussler said the decision to turn down deer meat also had to do with dignity. The organization will not accept dented cans, food nearing its expiration date or any item that people generally would not want to serve to their friends.

She also noted that the amount of deer meat the organization gets is small and there are many alternatives to deer meat.

"We get canned salmon, canned beef, pork, frozen chicken," she said. "It's an easy decision to make."

The group's decision comes as state and federal officials continue to seek ways to combat the disease, which has been found in 14 deer in south-central Wisconsin.

The deadly neurological disease, caused by an infectious protein called a prion, has cast uncertainty over the safety of eating venison. The World Health Organization has said there is no scientific evidence the disease can infect humans [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator]. But the agency also says that deer or elk with evidence of the disease should not be eaten.

Some will accept venison

Other food charities indicated they would continue accepting venison, including the Wisconsin Deer Donation Program that is coordinated by the DNR.

Last year, the program helped hunters donate 3,921 deer, about 176,000 pounds of meat, to pantries around the state, said Laurie Fike, a program assistant with the DNR.

"We'll probably meet or exceed last year's total," she said. "The pantries are giving people the choice."

Fike said the DNR reimburses counties that pay meat processors that work with the program. Generally, the program pays processors between $40 and $75 a deer.

That figure probably will go up this year because processors are expected to bone carcasses by hand rather than use power saws that cut through the spine. The spine contains high concentrations of nerve cells, which is where prions can be found if the animal has been infected.

The Hunt for the Hungry program in northeastern Wisconsin also will continue to accept deer meat from hunters, said Lee Dudek, coordinator for the program.

He said pantries in the nine-county area have discussed the issue with the families they serve.

"The vast majority are planning on taking home the donated venison this fall," he said.

USDA officials visit state

In a related matter Monday, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials met with state officials Monday to review the alternatives for dealing with the problem.

Bill Hawks, an undersecretary with USDA, met with U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) before going on to meet with Gov. Scott McCallum and other state officials in Madison. He said a team of USDA and Interior Department officials would be coming to Wisconsin to help state officials.

Hawks said the detection of the disease in Wisconsin's dense deer population -- the first time it has showed up east of the Mississippi River -- is cause for concern at the federal level.

"By showing up here, this far east and in a state that has a wonderful white-tailed deer population, it's certainly reason for us to be actively engaged in this process," Hawks said.

He also said a decision on the state's request for federal financial assistance would be made in the near future.

Wisconsin is seeking $18.5 million in federal aid to control the disease. Hawks offered no timetable for when a decision on funding will be made. But he praised the state's disease-control effort so far.

Kohl said federal money would be coming. "We'll get money that is sufficient to move ahead," he said. "I don't think money is going to be the problem."

However, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) said he was frustrated by the failure of the USDA to approve assistance quickly.

The disease was found Feb. 28 in three deer killed in last fall's hunt near Mount Horeb in western Dane County. After killing and testing more than 500 more deer in the area, the DNR found an additional 11 that tested positive for the fatal brain disease. Officials now plan to kill all of the deer in a 287-square-mile area near Mount Horeb to help contain the disease.

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