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10-23-2003, 01:25 PM
Pantries return to handing out venison

As fears about chronic wasting disease subside, food banks accepting donations

By MEG JONES, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, mjones@journalsentinel.com

Oct. 20, 2003

As the furor over chronic wasting disease dies down, more food pantries plan to hand out donated venison to poor people this year.

A year ago when worries about the fatal deer disease were at their peak, some food pantries in Wisconsin declined to accept donations of venison.

But after extensive statewide testing last year failed to turn up a single case of chronic wasting disease in the wild white-tailed deer outside of southern Wisconsin, food banks such as Feed My People in Eau Claire and Hunger Task Force of La Crosse decided this season to accept deer donated by hunters.

The La Crosse food agency, which serves 40 sites in La Crosse County, didn't take venison in 2002, but there's a demand this year, said Joanne Richmond, executive director.

"The reason we chose to do that this year is because we have some agencies that we distribute to that are willing to accept venison, and we have some agencies that do not want it," Richmond said Monday.

Donations from this fall's archery season are already ahead of last year. In northeastern Wisconsin, where Hunt for the Hungry coordinates donated venison for 10 counties, the upswing in donations is due to an increase in bowhunters, said Lee Dudek, the program's volunteer coordinator.

"There's more bowhunters out hunting this fall. Last year, CWD gave some of them a scare," said Dudek. "The lack of baiting also affected bowhunters. Those two issues are not a major concern this year so guys and ladies are back out hunting."

The Department of Natural Resources pays processing costs for donations of deer shot outside the disease zones. Last year fewer counties and processors participated in the program, partly because deer killed in the disease zones were not accepted.

But even though there were fewer counties participating last year, there were more deer donated in 2002 than in 2001 because, processors say, some hunters were leery of bringing the venison home due to chronic wasting disease concerns.

Last year, 5,646 deer and 254,000 pounds of venison were donated in 42 counties. In 2001, hunters donated 3,921 deer representing 176,000 pounds in 48 counties.

In 2000, the first year of the DNR's deer donation program, 65 counties participated with 7,765 deer and 350,000 pounds of venison given away. But the number of processors dropped from 156 that year to 86 last year.

This year, though, 52 counties and 111 meat processors have signed on to participate.

"I think some of the perceived fears of CWD have settled down a little bit," said Laurie Fike, coordinator of the venison donation program. "When it was first discovered there was quite a scare all over the state."

At Paul's Pantry in Green Bay, one- and two-pound packages of ground venison are already being given to needy families. Last season, there was so much venison that the food pantry supplied people with the meat until April. Venison normally runs out in January, said Angie Allard, Paul's Pantry manager.

Some food banks are not accepting venison again this year. Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee will not distribute donated venison because of chronic wasting disease concerns and because there are no butchers in Milwaukee County signed up to process donated venison, said Sara Luke, communications director.

"Until we get a letter from the DNR saying, 'Go ahead. It's safe,' we just don't feel comfortable supplying it to our clients," Luke said.

Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee supplies food for 63 food pantries and 20 meal programs and shelters.

"We're very grateful for any protein we can get. We just need to make sure it's safe," said Luke.

Fike said the DNR will not write a letter vouching for the safety of the venison.

"We feel that it's safe but we're not going to set ourselves up with a letter. The risk is so minimal. People take a bigger risk driving their car to work every day than with meat issues," said Fike.

With money from a surcharge on hunting licenses and bonus tag sales, the state pays butcher shops $40 to $75 per animal to process the meat. Last year, the program cost the DNR $346,000.

After registering deer, hunters can drop off the carcasses at 111 processors throughout the state.

For a list of meat processors handling deer donations, visit: http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/wildli...ion/dropoff.htm (http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/wildlife/damage/donation/dropoff.htm).