Hunt deer despite disease, but be smart, safe, food safety expert counsels

November 21, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The detection of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild deer in several parts of Pennsylvania has some deer hunters wondering whether they should continue with their fall traditions, but a food safety specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences urges them to carry on — but to take precautions.

“They can continue to enjoy deer hunting and be safe if they follow guidelines set by the Pennsylvania Game Commission,” said Martin Bucknavage, senior extension associate in food science, who teaches food safety strategies to industry professionals. “And, if they take a deer inside disease management areas in the state, they should have it tested for the disease before consuming venison.”

Information about disease management areas and getting deer tested for chronic wasting disease is available in the Chronic Wasting Disease section of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s website.

The neurological disease — often referred to as CWD — spreading through wild deer herds across the country has forced many hunters to re-evaluate their commitment to the sport, Bucknavage believes. He understands their concerns about the disease, which is always fatal to deer and elk but has not infected humans. However, he suggests there is a lot of confusion about the food-safety threat the disease poses.

In Pennsylvania — a state with a strong deer-hunting heritage — CWD worries seem to be common among hunters this year just before the firearms deer season opens Nov. 30, he said. Many are asking whether venison is safe to eat. In response, Bucknavage offers this: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people do not eat meat from animals that test positive for CWD.

“To date, according to the CDC, no chronic wasting disease infections have been reported in people,” Bucknavage said. “But if your animal tests positive for CWD, do not eat meat from that animal.”

The CDC website states, “Animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to some types of nonhuman primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come into contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk. These studies raise concerns that there also may be a risk to people … If CWD could spread to people, it would most likely be through the eating of infected deer and elk.”

“We just don’t know for sure about the risk to humans,” Bucknavage said. “But hunters play an important role in controlling CWD by keeping the deer population in check.”

He noted that hunters should harvest only deer that appear healthy and take reasonable precautions, such as wearing gloves while field dressing an animal and washing hands and equipment thoroughly when finished. Hunters in areas where CWD is known to exist should follow these guidelines to protect themselves:

–Do not shoot, handle or consume an animal that appears sick.

–Wear rubber or nitrile gloves when field dressing.

–Bone out the meat to remove high-risk parts such as brain, spinal cord, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes.

–Avoid cutting into or through the backbone, either lengthwise or across the spine. 

Minimize the handling of brain and spinal tissues.

–Thoroughly clean hands and processing tools with soap and water, then sanitize tools in a solution of 50% household chlorine bleach and 50% water for one hour.

–Ask your deer processor to process your meat individually, or process your own meat.

–Have your animal processed in the area of the state where it was harvested so high-risk body parts can be disposed of properly. It is illegal to take high-risk parts out of any Pennsylvania Disease Management Area.

–Don't consume high-risk parts. Normal field-dressing, coupled with boning out a carcass, will remove most, if not all, high-risk parts. Cutting away all fatty tissue will remove remaining lymph nodes.

–Have your animal tested, and do not consume meat from any animal that tests positive for the disease.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 21, 2019