CWD precautions needed

November 4, 2002 The Denver Post
Colorado's rules for handling wild meat lag consumer concerns about chronic wasting disease, a lethal brain ailment infecting a small percentage of the state's deer and elk. The state Agriculture Department, which oversees meat processing, must impose tougher rules.

There's no documented case of humans getting CWD. But because CWD is related to mad cow disease, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Colorado Division of Wildlife recommend that hunters not eat meat from an infected animal and avoid cutting into their game animals' backbones, where CWD may lurk. Hunters in northeast Colorado, where CWD is endemic, must submit the heads of their game animals for free testing, and hunters in other parts of the state are encouraged to pay $ 17 to do likewise. But such precautions may be moot if meat from a clean animal is later mixed with meat from an infected animal. Colorado, however, has no rule prohibiting game processors from mixing meat from different carcasses. In fact, when making sausage or ground meat, it's common for some processors to combine meat from a dozen animals. So even hunters who use every precaution in the field could wind up with meat from someone else's deer or elk that hasn't been tested for CWD - or may even have had the disease.

Colorado also doesn't require processors to clean their tools between working on game carcasses, nor does the state bar processors from slicing deer and elk carcasses down the backbone.

The disturbing findings were reported last week by Denver Post outdoors columnist Charlie Meyers.

While there may not be a public health threat, there is an obvious matter of consumer choice. At stake is the credibility of big game hunting in Colorado, a key part of our state's crucial tourism industry. The regulatory gap undermines the state's efforts to reassure hunters that they can harvest deer and elk in Colorado and still feel confident they're not taking home meat from infected animals.

The ag department should impose tougher standards - the most clear-cut would be to bar processors from handling meat from any infected deer or elk, or even from animals that haven't been tested for CWD. If the ag department doesn't act, the legislature should when it convenes in January.

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