November 1, 2002 Consumer Reports on Health
Public-health authorities are keeping a close eye on chronic wasting
disease (CWD), an animal disorder similar to mad-cow disease that
is spreading in deer and elk populations across North America. In
diseased animals, the brain accumulates infectious protein
particles called prions and becomes riddled with spongelike holes.
The process is similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE),
or mad-cow disease. As in BSE, animals that develop CWD become
emaciated and uncoordinated, and they eventually die. Unlike the
experience with infected cows, however, there is as yet no direct
evidence that eating the meat of deer or elk with CWD actually
causes disease in people. Still, test-tube experiments with prions
have shown that human infection is theoretically possible. And
researchers are investigating the deaths of several people who
hunted or regularly ate venison and subsequently succumbed to
Should consumers avoid eating deer and elk meat? Until more is known, the answer to that question depends on your personal risk tolerance, according to the food-safety experts at Consumers Union's Consumer Policy Institute. Deer or elk have tested positive for CWD in 10 states-Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming - and in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Testing in some areas suggests that 4 to 15 percent of the wild deer and about 1 to 2 percent of the wild elk are infected. Eating game from regions not listed above is not necessarily safer, since adequate testing has not been done in most areas. So to play it completely safe, you may wish to abstain from eating deer and elk meat for several years, until results of ongoing studies more clearly define any human health risks.
If you decide to eat deer or elk meat, consider choosing steaks, which are far less likely to be infected than organ meats. Chopped meat or sausages may be more risky, since they are likely to contain meat from several deer or elk, and possibly organ meat and nerve matter that may harbor infectious prions. Cooking the meat until it's well-done will protect against bacteria but not infectious prions, which are so highly resistant to heat they can't be cooked out.
Because of the possibility of the disease crossing over to people, hunters should take special precautions, especially when handling animal carcasses. Safety information for hunters is available at the Texas Parks and Wildlife web site (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/hunt/). For general information about CWD and the steps the government is taking to try to eradicate it, go to the web site of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at www.aphis.usda.gov/oa/cwd/index.html. Information on the disease is also available from states where CWD has been detected, such as Wisconsin (www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/wildlife/whealth/issues/cwd/ index.htm), Colorado (http://wildlife.state.co.us/cwd), and Nebraska (www.ngpc.state.ne.us/wildlife/cwd/cwdinfo.html).