Nutritional Supplements Made from Elk Antlers Could
Be Spreading a Mad-Cow Like Disease to Humans

Web Note: This article fails to note that several young US deer
hunters have recently died from CJD--the human equivalent of Mad Cow
Disease, alarming experts who fear that the Chronic Wasting Disease
epidemic in deer and elk could be spreading into the large population
of deer hunters, eaters of venison, and the consumers of nutritional
supplements (a 3 billion dollar industry) made from elk antlers. For
more information on chronic wasting disease see <>
WESTERN ROUNDUP, December 18, 2000

Cure or curse?
by Hal Herring

As Chronic Wasting Disease appears again, questions arise about the
velvet antler trade

June is velveting season on the elk ranches of the United States and
Canada. Bulls have to be treated with care - the soft, heavy antler
tissue is easily damaged, and a good bull may be carrying as much as
40 pounds.

At the going rate of $70 per pound, nobody can afford a free-for-all
in the velveting area. According to instructions on an elk farm Web
site,, cut-up pieces of sterile inner tube work best as
tourniquets, and a double-edged saw is the best tool for cutting off
the antlers. Don't forget to "turn antler bottom up to contain blood"
and "treat just like a meat byproduct," freezing as soon as possible,
"at a 15-degree angle to conserve all blood."

The sale of velvet antler from domestic elk in North America is
estimated by its proponents to be a $3 billion industry. Korea is
still the primary destination for most velvet products, but promoters
have created a demand in the U.S. alternative medicine and nutritional
supplement market.

Beginning next month, most of the 4,300 General Nutrition Centers will
be carrying elk-velvet capsules made by Natraflex, a company based in
Castle Rock, Colo.

"I eat velvet every day," says Natraflex founder Lloyd Riddle. Riddle
is an enthusiastic user of his own product, and has endorsements from
athletes, such as professional powerlifter Ron Madison and
ultra-marathoner Richard Huff.

Velvet is marketed in North America as a remedy for those suffering
from arthritis, sexual dysfunction, and joint ailments of all types,
and as a supplement for bodybuilders and extreme athletes.

Elk velvet antler, pumped tight with blood and pulsing with hormones,
is the most regenerative mammal tissue known, capable of growing over
half an inch in one day. According to Dr. George Bubenick, an
anatomist at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada, the density
of nerve receptors in velvet approaches that of the human cornea,
making it one of the most sensitive tissues in existence. It is no
wonder that traditional Oriental medicine holds the material in such
high regard, or that aging Western athletes would want to check it

But for the past several years, the domestic elk industry has been
battling a malady called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in its herds,
and a new outbreak has affected six elk ranches in Saskatchewan.
Chronic Wasting Disease belongs to a group of brain diseases known as
transmissable spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs, a group that
includes the so-called "mad cow disease" that destroyed the British
beef industry in the early 1990s. Also among the TSEs are scrapie, a
disease that has killed sheep for centuries in Europe, and has been
recognized in the U.S. for the past 50 years, and Creutzfeldt-Jacob
Disease (CJD), which causes dementia followed by rapid death in human

During the mad cow disaster in England, a new form of CJD began to
appear, afflicting younger people than the traditional disease.

Scientists called the new disease "variant CJD" because it leaves a
distinctly different pattern of destruction in the brain, a
"signature" that can be recognized when brain tissue from a victim is

Variant CJD has killed at least 80 people so far in Europe, and it is
linked to the consumption of British beef products that were
contaminated with the mad cow infection.

The disease crossed what scientists call "the species barrier" from
the infected cattle, to infect some proportion of the millions of
people who ate it before anyone realized that such a leap was

As with all TSEs, no one knows the incubation for variant CJD. It
cannot be predicted whether the threat to human beings in Europe is
over, or just beginning.

There is no TSE researcher working today who will discount the
possibility that Chronic Wasting Disease could produce variant CJD in
humans, especially if humans are consuming the brains, blood or nerve
tissue of infected animals.

No federal agencies regulate the velvet trade. The U.S. Department of
Agriculture does not monitor the harvest or the handling of the
product, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not follow how
it is consumed.

Regulation is voluntary

In 1999, South Dakota had 300 head of elk under quarantine for Chronic
Wasting Disease. One herd, tested after all of the animals were
destroyed, showed an infection rate of 30 percent. Yet, says South
Dakota State Veterinarian Dr. Sam Holland, there was nothing to
prevent the owners of those animals from selling their velvet.

"We do apprise the owners of the implications of selling velvet while
under quarantine," he said, "but we cannot stop them from doing so,
because there is no evidence that CWD is present in velvet, or can be
passed to humans."

Holland says that in his experience, elk ranchers in South Dakota have
all acted on the side of caution. "One producer who had infected elk
burned his whole stockpile - thousands of pounds - of velvet. He
didn't have to. He wanted to do the right thing."

In Montana, where two herds have been destroyed for Chronic Wasting
Disease, Karen Cooper of the Montana Department of Livestock says the
department "does not regulate any animal byproduct and therefore does
not have any information (about) which farms sell at what time."

Even where regulations are in place, such as Canada, there is no way
to test animals for Chronic Wasting Disease until the animals are

At the end of November, 1,500 head of elk from the six infected
ranches in Saskatchewan were destroyed. What happened to the velvet
that was harvested from those animals in June 2000?

"The animals were not under any kind of quarantine then, so it went
into the market," says Dr. George Luterbach, chief veterinarian of the
Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

But Ian Thorleifson of the Canadian Cervid Council says that "partly
by luck and partly by design, we are not aware of any velvet that was
sold from elk infected now that were not perceived to be infected in

In this country, the elk-ranching industry has contributed over
$200,000 to wasting disease research, much of the study seeking a test
that can determine infection in live animals. Some of the money has
gone to Dr. Mary Jo Schmeer, at the USDA facilities in Ames, Iowa, who
has been searching for the wasting disease agent in blood samples of
infected deer and elk.

"We have detected the agent in blood," she says. "I wouldn't want to
be taking any products that contain blood in concentrated form."

In England, she says, "Researchers established the transmission of BSE
(mad cow) to a sheep, from a transfusion of less than a cupful of
blood." Schmeer says she has a backlog of over a thousand blood
samples from deer and elk, and has no idea when, or if, a reliable
test will be discovered.

Dr. Byron Caughey and Dr. Bruce Chesebro work at Rocky Mountain
Laboratories, a research facility of the National Institute of Health,
in Hamilton, Mont. Both men have spent a large part of their lives
working on transmissable spongiform encephalopathy diseases, and both
have just returned from an international TSE conference in Europe.

Caughey has recently completed an experiment to obtain what he calls
"an initial glimpse" of how susceptible to CWD infection humans and
traditional livestock might be. "Early results show the possibility of
susceptibility to infection," he says. But Caughey is not impressed by
the threat of transmission through infected blood.

"Evidence says that a blood-borne transmission is possible, but it
would be extremely rare," he says. "But if you are talking about a
nerve-borne infection, the potential risk is many orders - maybe
millionfold - greater."

How big a danger?

"Playing with fire" is how Bruce Chesebro describes the current trade
in velvet. "Everybody talks about how scrapie has been present in
sheep for hundreds of years and has never been known to pass to
people," he says. "And in England, everybody was hoping that BSE (mad
cow disease) would be like scrapie, and pose no threat to humans, but
that bubble burst when the variant CJD cases started showing up in
young people in 1996. So you've got one TSE that passes to people, and
one that doesn't. Will CWD be like scrapie, or like BSE? Nobody

Also, he adds, "People like to say that natural transmission of TSEs
has always been rare. But with velvet, we're not talking about natural
transmission - you're grinding it up, putting it in capsules, and
eating it regularly. That's what I'd call experimental use. It's
basically the same thing we do in the lab with mice."

Elk ranchers, velvet promoters, and industry spokespersons, however,
want it to be clear that no human being, as far as can be known, has
ever contracted variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease from a Chronic
Wasting Disease-infected animal.

Thorleifson, of the Canadian Cervid Council, says, "No information is
available to suggest that CWD is infective to humans. It is true that
Canadian elk producers are concerned regarding the possibility of any
negative effect resulting from consumption of an imperfect elk
product. That is the justification for the slaughter of over 1,500
Canadian farmed elk, in spite of the fact that only 16 elk from those
herds have been found positive for CWD."

Thorleifson adds: "There must be some risk of transmission, but we
feel that risk is extremely low."

Steve Wolcott, a Colorado elk producer and chairman of animal health
for the North American Elk Breeders Association, also believes that
the low numbers of infected animals, and the history of the disease so
far, suggest that the risk to humans is minimal.

"We are talking about maybe 13 herds of infected elk," he said, "and
six or seven under quarantine now, out of hundreds of herds. Compared
to the sheep industry, we are bending over backwards to solve this
problem, but because we are a small industry we get attacked from all

He points out that Chronic Wasting Disease has existed in the wild,
affecting 1 percent of the elk, and 18 percent of the mule deer in a
small but expanding portion of Colorado and Wyoming, and of the
thousands of people who hunt there, none have apparently died of
variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease.

In Castle Rock, Colo., Natraflex president and founder Lloyd Riddle
isn't worried. For one thing, he says, he knows where his velvet is
coming from.

"I certainly don't buy from pools. I buy directly from ranches that I
know have the strictest standards, so I always know the source."

Riddle adds that of the millions of people eating velvet, "Nobody's
out there tipping over. It's just not a problem, and I'd hate to see
it represented as one."

On the Natraflex Web site, a browser can purchase the new book by
California nutritionist Betty Kamen, titled The Remarkable Healing
Power of Velvet Antler.

On her Web site promoting the book, Kamen does not mention TSE
diseases but does discuss the question, "Is it safe to use an antler
supplement?" Her conclusion? "The question I feel compelled to ask
myself is this: is it safe not to use an antler supplement?"

Hal Herring is a free-lance writer in Corvalis, Montana.

You can contact ...

Natraflex Brands, 888/283-3539; Canadian Food Inspection Agency,
204/983-2624; Canadian Cervid Council, 780/460-9424; The Food and Drug
Administration: 888/723-3663 or 888/463-6332; Steve Wolcott, North
American Elk Breeders Association, 970/527-4586.

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