Chronic Wasting Disease - To Worry or Not to Worry?

Right off the bat I will tell you, if I can use data and logic to make a decision rather than feelings, I will do it.  However, often times science is unsettled and you still have to decide. This happens many times in life and that is when we use our “gut”.  I once heard the “gut” described as our subconscious brain analyzing past experiences, acquired knowledge and current stimuli and guiding you to the safest outcome.

My gut tells me not to worry about eating meat from an animal infected with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).  But, let me break this down because this is not a black and white issue.

·     There is no record of a human ever contracting this disease from deer or elk.  This doesn’t mean it is impossible, of course. Recently a man in New York died and they believe the cause might have been Creutzfeld-Jackob Disease (CJD).  He was an avid squirrel hunter and it is theorized that he contracted it through infected brain fluid or tissue.  However, they have not confirmed the diagnosis through autopsy (which is the only way to diagnose).  

·     CJD is an incredibly rare disease (only a few hundred cases have been recorded, almost all of those tied to mad cow disease in the UK) and of those very few cases, they believe over 85% are caused by factors unrelated to genetic or environmental causes, leaving only 15% of cases to be caused by genetic or environmental factors.  

·     CWD was first identified in 1967 in a wildlife research facility in Fort Collins, Colorado.  CJD is a very fast acting and noticeable disease.  If hunters were dying disproportionately from this disease, we’d have a record from the last 51 years.  This is not saying a hunter hasn’t caught it and died without being diagnosed, but if it has happened, it’s been incredibly rare based on the number of hunters, their friends and family in this country eating venison and elk every year.

·     CWD is extremely rare, even in places like Northern Colorado where it was first discovered.  Less than 6% of deer and less than 1% of elk in these areas are affected.

As I always say to people, on a number of different topics, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.  However, that is not to say you should make decisions out of fear of what could be true.  Therefore, I am going to eat meat from my harvest in the field this year, but I am going to take the following precautions:

·      I am not going to eat the brain.  This would probably be true even without CWD.  I’ll eat damn near anything off an animal, but the brain is not appetizing to me. Even though I would eat the eyes, I am also leaving those for the coyotes and other scavengers.  

·      I am going to bone out the neck meat.

·      I am going to have the carcass tested before feeding it to my family.

However, I will eat some fresh backstraps at camp and I am bringing some bones home with me for use in osso bucco, bone marrow consumption and finally, for bone broth.  If my animal tests positive, I will of course dispose of the meat and bones according the rules of Colorado Parks & Wildlife.  

CWD is a big problem in our cervid population and it is something every hunter should worry about in regard to the health of our herds.  If you want to wait on the test results before consuming your harvest, I won’t argue with you (unless you’re my hunting buddy, but that’s what we do, talk about hunting), but I am not going to concern myself with CWD when less than 1% of elk carry a disease that has no evidence of being transferred to humans.  Eating a fresh meal in camp is one of the time-honored traditions and sacraments of the hunt.  I am choosing not to deny myself an opportunity to commune with my ancestors in this tradition over such minuscule risk.