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Doctors seek rules for deer butchers
Similarities between chronic wasting, mad cow diseases noted
By LEE BERGQUIST firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Updated: Oct. 8, 2002
Because of similarities between chronic wasting disease and mad cow disease, the Medical Society of Milwaukee County on Tuesday urged the state to adopt the same regulations for deer processing that the English imposed on the British beef industry.
Special Section: Chronic Wasting Disease
The call for stricter regulation comes as hunters and the public wonder whether chronic wasting disease has spread beyond a region west of Madison - although there is no proof of that - and as sales of deer license sales are down an average of 22%.
The major thrust of the medical group's recommendations was a call for regulation of the deer processing industry; not all deer butchering in Wisconsin is now regulated.
While meat plants that take on venison processing during the deer season must follow state regulations, a vast sub-economy of unregulated entrepreneurs has carved up deer for hunters in their basements and garages for generations.
"I don't think that it is unreasonable, in a state that regulates hairdressers and virtually all aspects of the food industry, to regulate deer processing," said G. Richard Olds, an infectious disease expert and chairman of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Olds chaired the Public Health Committee of the society, whose recommendations were supported by the group's board of directors.
The group, which is pressing its recommendations with the Medical Society of Wisconsin as well, also questioned whether meat processors should be allowed to carve up venison in the same location as they butcher other meat.
State regulations currently permit meat processors to use the same facilities to butcher both venison and other meat - but not at the same time and only after the facilities have been cleaned.
But Olds is concerned about that cleanup. Prions - the mutant protein in chronic wasting disease that eventually kills deer - cannot be eliminated through the traditional sterilization practices used in meat processing plants.
The group also urged that no brains, spinal cord, eyes and lymphatic tissue be used in deer sausage.
"We are not trying to take an alarmist position," said Olds, noting that studies do not show that humans can be infected by the disease. "But it would be reasonable to make safeguards so we don't repeat what happened in England."
32 deer infected
Wisconsin first discovered the disease in three deer shot last fall near Mount Horeb, and since then 28 more infected deer in that area have tested positive. In addition, one captive deer at a farm in Portage County has tested positive.
Since the disease was first reported on Feb. 28, the Department of Natural Resources has carved out a 389-square-mile region in parts of Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties where it wants to kill 25,000 deer and another 71,000 deer in a broader 10-county region.
As for the British reforms, the biggest change for meat processors was a requirement to use separate tools to remove the head and spinal cord of a cow and to dress the carcass, according to Steve Bjerklie, editor of the North American edition of Meat Processing magazine.
Other reforms in Britain included a 1996 requirement that all cow heads must be disposed of in slaughterhouses as a specific risk material. In Wisconsin, deer heads can be dumped in landfills.
In 1998, the British government also outlawed the sale of beef on the bone.
Some of the changes are essentially in place now, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Meat processors that butcher deer must follow meat processing regulations, said agency spokeswoman Donna Gilson.
Also, she said the agency released a series of precautions for handling and processing deer that are being followed by the industry.
Those recommendations include:
Not cutting through the spinal column - except to remove the head. And then use a knife only for that purpose.
Minimizing handling brain and spinal tissues.
Not eating the eyes, brain, spinal cord, spleen, tonsils or lymph nodes.
As for regulating all deer processing, as recommended by the medical society, Gilson said the agency has no such authority and would not seek that authority unless some scientific evidence made a disease link between deer and humans.
Butcher supports regulation
Richard Dickman, owner of Dick's Quality Meats in Mount Horeb, said he thinks it is time for deer butchering to be regulated.
Dickman owns a butcher shop in the zone where chronic wasting disease has been found and he also operates a separate plant strictly for deer season.
With an expectation that fewer deer will be butchered there this year because of the disease, Dickman continues to get calls from hunters because he said other butchers are not processing deer this year.
The uncertainty over the disease is raising havoc for many meat processors, Bjerklie said.
"There is a lot of shooting in the dark," he said. "A lot of those people outside of Madison and in rural communities, for them, processing deer is a big part of their business. To lose that business would put some of them under.