CWD is expanding in range, how will it affect how you treat your venison?
If you've spent any time on social media lately, you've probably seen articles about the zombie deer disease and the possibility that it could spread to humans. The catchy title has caused the article to be shared in as varied and venerable media sources as Country Living Magazine, NPR, and Forbes Magazine.
What's it all about? Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a malady that's been around for nearly half a century. Why is it getting all the recent publicity? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, CWD is spreading. Once limited to the upper western states, it has now been confirmed in 24 states, three Canadian provinces, and two foreign countries. The latest was just a few weeks ago. A 4.5-year-old white-tailed deer collected on January 25, 2018, in Issaquena County, Mississippi, was confirmed to have died from CWD, a first for the state.
What is CWD? According to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, CWD is a disease that affects only cervids (hoofed animals in the cervidae family such as deer, elk, and moose). CWD affects the body's nervous system. Once in the host's body, prions transform normal cellular protein into an abnormal shape that accumulates until the cell ceases to function.
According to the Alliance, it is not known exactly how CWD is transmitted. The infectious agent may be passed in feces, urine or saliva. Transmission is thought to be lateral (from animal to animal). Although maternal transmission (from mother to fetus) may occur, it appears to be relatively unimportant in maintaining epidemics. The minimal incubation period between infection and development of clinical disease appears to be approximately 16 months. The incubation period is unknown, as is the point at which shedding of the CWD agent begins during the prolonged course of infection.
Infected deer tend to stay away from herds, walk in patterns, carry their head low, salivate, and grind their teeth. CWD deer in the end stages of the disease often lose all fear of humans and seem oblivious to their surroundings, leading to the zombie description in the articles. CWD is always fatal.
But even after 50 plus years of known existence, CWD has never been proven to jump to humans. Yet. And that leads us to the second reason CWD has been such a hot topic of late. A recent study conducted by the Alberta Prion Research Institute discovered that the disease can be spread to macaque monkeys who've eaten infected deer meat. The primates chosen for the study were selected for their genetic similarity to humans. A sister disease to CWD, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), has already been proven to infect humans.
Does this concern me? You better believe it does. A significant portion of my family's diet is made up of wild game, with venison being the most prominent by far. I've always viewed venison as not only delicious, but as a antibiotic- and additive-free source of healthy organic protein. I owe it to my wife and children to research and learn as much about this disease as possible and take any safety concerns seriously.
Will it stop me and my family from eating venison? Probably not. At least until it is 100 percent proven that it can be passed to humans. But I will do a few things differently in CWD-positive areas.
What am I going to do to protect my family? A few things. First, I support absolute bans on all captive cervid transfers across state lines. According to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, the movement of infected animals is one of the greatest risk factors in spreading the disease into new areas. Natural movements of wild deer and elk contribute to the spread of the disease, and human-aided transportation of both captive and wild animals greatly exacerbates this risk factor. It has been proven that CWD is transmittable between captive animals and wild herds in the surrounding area.
Next, I completely support all baiting and mineral bans in CWD-positive areas. Any actions that concentrate deer in one area hastens the spread of the disease between animals. While baiting is legal in my home state of KY, and we do put out corn for trail camera surveys and archery hunts, if, or more likely when, CWD hits our area, all baiting and mineral sites will stop on every farm we hunt.
While we don't currently have CWD in our home area, we do travel to hunt in states that are CWD positive. When we do, I take the following steps to lessen the likelihood of transmitting CWD to my venison. Most of the following tips come from the Wisconsin DNR website.
I don't take deer that look sick or unhealthy. Antler size be darned, if a deer is acting unnatural, or looks unhealthy, it gets a pass. While healthy deer can still carry the disease, there is a much greater chance that a sick deer might be infected.
I wear rubber gloves when field dressing and processing deer from CWD-positive areas. I also wash my hands and arms in a bleach/water mixture after finishing field dressing and processing our deer.
I bone out all deer before traveling home. Since the prions that cause CWD are concentrated in the spinal cord tissues, eyes, spleen, or lymph nodes. Bone out the venison and limit as much contact with these tissues as possible. Trim all surface fat from the venison.
Use only a knife. Sawing through the spinal column can spread the prions to the meat. Use only a knife to remove the venison from the carcass. I soak all my knives and field dressing equipment for an hour in a 50/50 bleach water mix to sterilize them after field dressing.
I transport only the cleaned skull or, even better, the skull cap with antlers attached back home. No trophy is worth risking the spread of CWD to an area where it doesn't already exist.
I'll package my deer from CWD-positive areas separately from the venison from my home area. I mark each package with the deer and location it came from so that I can tell them apart in my freezer.
I get the meat tested. Most CWD-positive states offer testing of venison. Find out what you need to do to get your venison tested before you go hunting and have all necessary testing materials on hand. New testing methods have cut the time between sending the sample in and getting the results from several weeks to a matter of days in some states. Don't consume the venison from your deer until you have the results in hand. Kansas now offers free CWD testing packets to its hunters. Instructions for sample taking are clearly printed on the package. Wildlife officials in Wisconsin have recently started working with private labs who use the rapid test. The partnership promises to greatly shorten the wait time for Wisconsin hunters. With the rapid spread of the disease, hopefully other states will implement the rapid testing techniques.
I process my own deer. Nothing against processors, I know some good ones, but in CWD-positive areas, I want to know for sure that my deer is the one in the package of venison. And I want to know that no saws were used to severe the spinal cord on that deer.
So, will CWD kill venison? Not for me. But it will change the way I hunt, handle and process it for consumption by those I love.