Last month, amid rising fears that Minnesota's whitetail deer population may be infected with chronic wasting disease, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources held a public meeting in the northern Minnesota town of Aitkin. The goal, according to DNR communications director Dennis Stauffer, was simple: to give deer hunters "the most up-to-date information" on CWD, a little-understood and invariably fatal brain-destroying illness that is related to that most notorious of modern scourges, the dreaded mad cow disease.
Before the public meeting, Stauffer says, he "heard there was quite a bit of hysteria in the community." It was understandable. An outbreak of CWD among wild deer in southern Wisconsin had been making headlines for months. Then in August, a captive elk from a farm in Aitkin County was diagnosed with the disease, marking the first recorded case of CWD in Minnesota. As a result, Stauffer says, a growing number of Minnesota hunters were expressing worries about the safety of eating venison--particularly in the area around Aitkin County.
So the DNR worked up a PowerPoint presentation. The prime theme: Unlike mad cow disease, which has killed more than 120 people in Great Britain, CWD has never been shown to cross the so-called species barrier and infect humans. After providing that reassurance, DNR officials outlined the agency's efforts to assess the extent of Minnesota's CWD problem, including plans to shoot deer in the vicinity of the elk farm to see whether there is evidence of disease in their brains. (So far, the DNR has tested 25 deer, all negative.)
As Stauffer tells it, the presentation to the Aitkin County hunters was an unmitigated success. "We went in there expecting a lot of alarm and confusion. By the end of the hour, the questions were on the order of, 'If you're taking all these deer, can we at least have the meat?'" Stauffer says. "We had pretty much taken the food safety issue off the table." Plans for similar informational sessions--and a DNR-produced CWD documentary to be aired on public television stations in advance of the November deer hunt--are in the works.
As CWD has spread through the West and Midwest, the species-barrier argument has become a virtual mantra of government agencies, the outdoors press, the elk and deer farming industry, and various hunting associations. It has also proved popular among politicians. Last month Ed Thompson, a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin (and brother of Tommy Thompson, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services), faced the cameras to wolf down a venison bratwurst made from deer harvested in an area known to harbor CWD. The Wisconsin Deer Hunters Coalition, meanwhile, has placed television ads during Packers games in an effort to calm fears.
"There is a huge public and private PR campaign being mounted telling hunters the risk of CWD spreading to people is minimal and that it's your patriotic duty to get out there and kill deer," observes John Stauber, the executive director of the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy and co-author of the book Mad Cow USA. "There's a huge industry with a vested interest in denying the risks of this disease."
In Minnesota, according to DNR estimates, deer hunting accounts for some $275 million in annual expenditures. The possibility that a significant number of the state's half-million deer hunters might forgo their annual hunt come November could have a dire impact on the cash-strapped DNR, which collects about $14 million annually from the sale of deer licenses. (The state government, meanwhile, hauls in an estimated $25 million in sales taxes directly related to deer hunting.)
To critics like Stauber, the situation poses a dangerous conflict of interest between providing "the best scientific advice and making sure that people continue to hunt deer and buy licenses." In Stauber's view, the response to CWD in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and elsewhere is disturbingly reminiscent of the British government's response at the outset of the mad cow disease epidemic. For nearly a decade, government scientists there publicly dismissed the possibility that mad cow disease could jump species. As in Wisconsin, U.K. politicians also consumed suspect meat for the cameras in the hopes of soothing a jumpy public.
The DNR's Stauffer, however, insists that officials in Minnesota aren't making the same mistake. "We don't want to repeat what happened in Europe, so we're very careful not to make blanket assurances," Stauffer says. So despite the contention that CWD is "not a human health issue," the DNR has provided hunters with information on how to get their deer tested for CWD. The agency has also issued a tip sheet on other ways to guard against CWD exposure. Among the suggestions: Hunters should not shoot sick-looking animals and ought to avoid consuming the parts of the animals most likely to host CWD infection. In other words, don't eat a deer's brains, eyes, spinal cord, tonsils, lymph nodes, or spleen.
Such advice, however obvious, doesn't go nearly far enough, counters Michael Greger, a Boston physician and food safety activist who is currently on a speaking tour focusing on CWD. He notes that deer infected with CWD don't display obvious physical signs until the disease is in its final stages; that CWD tests are far from foolproof; and that it's entirely possible infected tissue could be mixed with meat during the butchering process or even by bullet fragments. (Given such uncertainties, Greger questions the DNR's plans to donate venison from the Aitkin County slaughter to area food shelves).
Nor is Greger persuaded by the oft-invoked species-barrier claim. The National Institutes of Health-funded study most often cited to bolster that argument is far from clear-cut, he contends. In the study, scientists exposed CWD prion proteins--the infectious agent believed to cause CWD--to normal human prion proteins. The result: a very weak transmission rate.
"Yes, it's true that the transmission rate is very low," Greger concedes. And whether low transmission in a test-tube setting would translate into any real-world risks remains an open question. But, Greger notes, the study found that the CWD transmission rate, while low, is comparable to the transmission rate of mad cow disease. "Nobody disputes that mad cow disease can infect human beings," he says. "The evidence is unassailable."
Prion-based afflictions like CWD, mad cow, and their human equivalents (such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob) can take years or sometimes decades to produce symptoms. Because of that, Greger says, it is difficult to get a handle on the extent of infection in any given population. While the death toll of mad cow disease on humans in the U.K. is still relatively small, there is scant consensus on what the numbers will look like in 15 years. One recent mathematical model, Greger notes, calculated a worst-case scenario at 136,000 human deaths from infected beef.
Although there is uncertainty surrounding the human health consequences of mad cow disease, there is even less known about CWD, says Greger. "We don't even know how it is transmitted deer to deer. And if scientists are going to be truly honest, they would answer every question with, 'We don't know.' Under the precautionary principle, we should be telling hunters, 'Wait a second, this could be a public health hazard.'"
Among the majority of Minnesota hunters and venison eaters, that message has yet to take hold. A recent St. Paul Pioneer Press/Minnesota Public Radio poll found that about a quarter of Minnesota deer hunters say they will skip this year's hunt. Citing current deer permit sales that are on pace with past trends, however, the DNR and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association are skeptical of those numbers.
Larry Bolig, co-host of the syndicated outdoors radio show "Bear Facts and Fish Tales," says he finds the CWD debate overblown. And so, he says, do most of his hunting buddies and listeners. "I have yet to be convinced that there is anything to worry about, and I have yet to find a guy who is not going to hunt this year because of CWD," Bolig says. The concerns of non-hunters, he adds, are another story.
"My own wife said to me, 'You're not bringing home any deer meat this year,'" Bolig chuckles. "Well, the hell I'm not."