Recent media reports linking eating wild deer meat to a form of "mad cow disease" have been sensationalized, and hunters should not been worried about their venison, according to officials with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
A degenerative brain disease similar to mad cow disease - called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in deer and elk - has been recently confirmed in a captive elk herd in Oklahoma County, but has never been documented in wild deer or elk in Oklahoma. Even if the disease did exist in wild herds, there has never been a confirmed case of a hunter contracting it through hunting or eating venison.
"Chronic Wasting Disease has occurred in Colorado and Wyoming for 30 years, but nobody who has hunted there or eaten venison from those animals has come down with CWD," said Mike Shaw, wildlife research supervisor for the Wildlife Department. "A hunter from Vinita contracted Creuztfelt-Jacob Disease (CJD), a related spongiform encephalopathy, in 1999, but the National Center for Disease Control never established a positive connection to his eating deer meat. We even investigated the possible link by sampling 16 deer from the area where the man hunted. None of the deer tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease. In addition, we have tested more than 200 deer from other parts of the state, and those deer have all been negative for CWD."
In fact, nationally there are over 11 million big game hunters, and only two confirmed reports of hunters contracting Creuztfelt-Jacob Disease, Shaw said. The Center for Disease Control investigated both cases and concluded that their contracting CJD was coincidental to hunting.
"There is always a risk involved with handling any type of animals, domestic or wild, but that risk is very small," he said. "The odds are many times greater that someone would be struck by lightning or die from a bee sting."
Shaw said there are two precautions that anyone concerned about chronic wasting disease can take. Wearing protective gloves when dressing and butchering animals and avoiding consumption of brain and spinal cord tissue are good precautionary measures. Dr. Gene Eskew, a veterinarian with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, said the captive elk in Oklahoma County are under quarantine, and they do not believe any infected elk have been killed for human consumption. Only four of the 140 elk have contracted the disease thus far. Agriculture Department officials will be watching for additional elk deaths, and will test the animals immediately through the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.
"As a biological scientist who has studied deer most of my life, I can honestly say that I don't see any danger in eating deer meat because there just isn't any scientific evidence proving that Chronic Wasting Disease can cause Creuztfelt-Jacob Disease," Shaw said. "There are far too many other things to worry about; real dangers like driving to work, having a heart attack because you don't exercise enough or getting stung by a bee."