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The Bite

Still game to try venison despite disease scares.

The name of the game: When people talk about cruel and unusual punishment, they might be thinking about what the Moffat County Jail has been serving prisoners -- elk and deer, the very meat that's at the center of the current storm over chronic wasting disease.

CWD, a degenerative brain disease, is a distant cousin of the mad cow disease that's terrorizing Europe and the United Kingdom today. Although there's no proof that the disease can be transmitted to humans through contaminated flesh, CWD plays out in animals much as mad cow disease does in both animals and humans: The brain develops spongelike holes that cause the victim to lose basic functions one by one, and the animal or human usually falls into a coma just before dying. (In humans, mad cow disease is known as new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease; the original Creutzfeldt-Jakob occurs naturally in about one in a million people.)

Experts who have been studying CWD for the past decade recently submitted their findings to the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. "Even though there has been no proof -- absolutely no proof -- that the disease is transmissible from deer and elk to humans, to allay consumers' concerns we have recommended a federal ban on the sale of products from infected elk," says Glen Zebarth, the veterinarian who presented the study's findings to an FDA committee. As incentive for elk ranchers to comply with the program, the government will compensate anyone whose herds test positive for CWD.

Elk and deer meat available for wholesale and retail purposes is already inspected by the FDA, working in tandem with the USDA. "Testing is done on all meat products," explains Matt Barnes at New West Foods, a Denver wholesaler that counts elk and deer meat among its offerings. "No uninspected meat will be offered for sale, and no meat that has tested positive for the disease will be offered for sale." The deer available commercially is farm-raised, he adds; so far, only wild deer, not farm-raised deer, have tested positive for CWD.

But the Moffat County prisoners beefing about their venison and elk entrees aren't complaining because of chronic wasting disease -- they're worried that their meals started out as roadkill. While they eat wild game, they complained in one letter, Sheriff Buddy Grinsteadhas been getting "fat eating high on the hog." In response, Grinstead has issued a public statement saying, in effect, that doing the crime and the time means losing the privilege of meal options.

The game meat the jail's been serving actually comes from poached and illegal kills that have been confiscated, according to a Moffat County spokeswoman, who adds that they've been told the meat is safe because it comes directly from a licensed meat-packing plant. "If you ask me, this whole thing has been blown out of proportion," adds the woman, who asked that her name not be used. "We're not breaking any rules, the prisoners aren't suffering, and this whole thing's just silly."

No, silly is paying $24 for a plate of venison at a restaurant when you could be getting it for free in jail.

Even though the feds say there's no evidence that chronic wasting disease can be passed from animals to humans, that's what they initially said about mad cow disease, too. And so, while I'm going to continue to eat game meat, I'm not going to let my kids eat it anymore.

I have yet to rethink whether beef is what should be for dinner, although a recent blood drive had me counting every day I've spent in the British Isles over the last few years. If your time in England, Scotland and Ireland adds up to six months -- and they're so serious the technicians will make you count it down to the day -- you're disqualified from giving blood. That's a mandate handed down by the FDA; the odds are just too great that you might have contracted bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. (That's a misleading nickname, by the way, since the disease also affects sheep.)

The FDA is so concerned about that possibility that in January, one of its committees recommended that six months spent collectively in France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and Portugal also be added to the list of disqualifications for blood donation. Why six months? "After surveying the numbers, we decided that making the time period shorter than that would not substantially change the risk of their having contracted mad cow disease but would substantially change the numbers of people donating blood," says Lenore Geld, an FDA spokeswoman. "So many people in this country have traveled there that there could be a serious shortage of blood."

And blood shortages aren't the only official concerns. Last week, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell asked the ag department to study both mad cow and CWD dangers in this country.

Nearly a hundred people in Great Britain have been killed by the disease since its human form was discovered in the mid-'90s -- that's out of millions and millions, by the way, who are likely to have eaten tainted beef -- and that country continues to fight the spread of the disease by prohibiting livestock meal made from the by-products of animals that could be diseased. But the idea that mad cow disease could be transmitted through blood products if the donor has eaten tainted beef is still theoretical, and thus far, there are no confirmed reports of mad cow disease being contracted by a human in this country. For that matter, no cattle in the U.S. have tested positive for mad cow -- since 1989, there have been strict regulations against importing cattle from the affected countries -- and since last December 7, no rendered animal-protein products from Europe have been allowed in this country, either. (One cow in Canada tested positive, and it and its herdmates were destroyed.)

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