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Growing Risk Diseased Deer Meat Is Ending Up on Canadians’ Tables, Critics Warn

Measures to keep deer with chronic wasting disease off market inadequate, say advocates.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 15 Jul 2019 |

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Every year, more than a million Canadians eat venison from wild or farmed deer. For Indigenous peoples, wild cervid meat (everything from deer to caribou to moose) remains an important source of free protein from coast to coast to coast.

But two advocates warn that chronic wasting disease, a brain-wasting protein spreading from farmed to wild cervid populations, is a threat both to people who eat venison and Canada’s agricultural economy.

The threat from chronic wasting disease has been well established. Last month a group of scientists, agricultural economists and First Nations leaders warned the federal government that it could face costly trade embargoes and health risks if it doesn’t control the disease.

Now advocates are charging that the current approach by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is putting the public at risk by allowing deer meat that could be infected with CWD to be sold to unsuspecting customers.

A relative of Mad Cow disease, CWD is fatal for deer and elk, highly transmissible and has a long incubation period. It can be spread directly between animals, or indirectly from soil and plants. There is no cure.

Hunters often call it “zombie deer disease.” Animals typically grow listless and emaciated. They drool uncontrollably, move erratically and waste away until death.

Although there is no evidence of transmission to humans, Health Canada warned in 2017 that “it has the potential to infect humans” based on recent and ongoing studies with monkeys.

It recommends against eating infected venison, because cooking doesn’t destroy the abnormal prion, the protein form that causes the brain-wasting disease.

Kat Lanteigne, executive director of a non-profit dedicated to a safe public blood supply, says despite the Health Canada warning consumers could end up eating infected venison.

“Chefs and butchers have not been educated about chronic wasting disease,” said Lanteigne. “Who is telling them where their meat is coming from?”

The answer to that question is unsettling.

Last September, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency detected the first case of CWD in Quebec at a red deer breeding farm northwest of Montreal. The disease had been confined to Alberta and Saskatchewan.*

All hell broke loose.

Federal officials descended on the intensive livestock operation and immediately placed a herd of almost 2,800 red deer in quarantine and began testing for CWD.

As federal officials found more infected animals, they supervised the culling of the herd over a three-month period. They also removed the top 20 centimetres of soil from areas where the infected deer were penned.

And because chronic wasting disease represents a proven threat to wildlife (wild white-tailed deer often went nose to nose with the captive red deer along the fence line), provincial wildlife authorities promptly got involved.

The Quebec Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks banned all hunting and trapping and limited off-road activities in a 400-square-kilometre block around the farm for several months — an area that included parts of the Laurentians and Outaouais regions north and west of Montreal.

Wildlife officials baited or killed more than 500 wild white-tailed deer in the monitored zone and tested them for the disease. To date, all came back negative.

The government also issued a fact sheet warning hunters and rural residents about the fatal degenerative disease.

“Once CWD is introduced into wildlife, it is extremely difficult to eradicate,” said the sheet. 

Back at the farm, the inspectors ordered all the deer to be killed. About 47 per cent of them — 1,297 — were tested for chronic wasting disease. The 11 deer that tested positive were disposed of.

But more than half the farm’s stock — 1,492 deer — weren’t tested. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency doesn’t require testing for red deer under one year old, maintaining the long incubation periods of prion diseases make detection unlikely.

The untested deer, and all the ones that tested negative, were sold for food.

Prions — the protein-based agents that cause CWD and similar diseases — can contaminate blood supplies and products. When the first human case of Mad Cow disease appeared in 1996, that discovery temporarily shut down the U.K.’s blood supply, she said. Public health officials still fear the risk of transfer through blood donations.

Scientists also know that “cervids may harbour and shed the CWD agent for several months prior to onset of their symptoms.” And the Canadian Food Inspection Agency acknowledges on its website that a negative test result “does not guarantee that an individual animal is not infected with CWD, but it does make it considerably less likely.”

Lanteigne asked Penny Greenwood, national manager of the agency’s Domestic Disease Control Section, a series of questions about what happened to the herd exposed to CWD in Quebec. 

Greenwood confirmed meat from carcasses that tested negative and red deer under 12 months of age was “permitted to be released and marketed at the discretion of the owner.”

“Cervids under 12 months of age are not typically sent for slaughter as there are limited markets for this meat,” she added. “But the choice to destroy them by slaughter was made as there was a market for the meat.”

Greenwood said farmed elk or red deer exposed to the disease could end up in the human food chain as long as mature animals test negative at a provincial abattoir. That’s not true for other species, such as white-tailed deer, as CWD spreads more quickly in them.

The response floored Lanteigne. 

“This decision demonstrates a shocking disregard for public health and safety, as there is no such thing as safe exposure to prions, and that’s a scientific fact,” she told The Tyee. “Don’t test, don’t know and don’t tell is not a responsible public health policy in any shape or form.” Lanteigne is formally requesting that the federal Public Health Agency do an inquiry and risk assessment on human exposure to chronic wasting disease.

The idea that any meat from a contaminated farm is entering the human food chain is appalling and “reckless,” said Darrel Rowledge, director of the Alliance for Public Wildlife. 

In the 1990s, the public was assured Mad Cow disease, another prion brain-wasting agent, could not cross the species barrier and infect humans.

But in 1996 the unthinkable happened. More than 150 people died in the outbreak as a result of eating infected beef. The disease cost the British economy billions. 

Canada should learn from history, said Lanteigne.

“Given that the impact of just one case of chronic wasting disease in humans would be economically catastrophic, why take the risk?” she asks. “Shouldn’t you try to limit the spread of the disease?” 

And shouldn’t restaurant-goers and butchers know whether their venison is coming from a contaminated farm and whether it has been tested, she adds. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says on its website that its previous policy of trying to eradicate the disease by killing entire herds exposed to CWD and burying or burning them ended in 2017 based on deregulating initiatives begun in the Harper government.

The new approach focuses on reducing “the risk of the disease spreading by encouraging producers to adopt strong risk mitigation measures.”

Combined with a 2014 policy that allows cervid meat from certain contaminated farms into the marketplace, the agency’s new approach has increased human exposure to chronic wasting disease, critics conclude.

CFIA said in an email that the deer were released into the market because “CWD is not a known human health or a food safety risk.” But that appears to contradict Health Canada’s warning about the potential risks.

Cervid farmers say they support “Canada’s very well established, operated and respected food safety system.”

Ian Thorleifson, secretary and chair of the Alberta-based Canadian Cervid Alliance, accused critics of fear mongering.

“It is very disappointing and unfortunate when people exaggerate concerns and exacerbate the fears of ill-informed people, but I guess there’s a dollar in it, eh?” he said.

Thorleifson characterized a recent public letter signed by scientists and economists demanding stricter controls on CWD as “an attempt to scare the Canadian government into taking drastic and unnecessary measures that will harm Canadian agriculture.”

The disease is caused by the most widespread and easily transmissible prion on the planet. 

Since its emergence at an agricultural testing facility in Colorado in 1968, it has spread to 27 states and three provinces. In some jurisdictions the disease has infected up 50 per cent of the wild deer populations.  

According to Agriculture Canada, 650 farms now raise approximately 40,000 elk, red deer and white-tailed deer in Canada.

The bulk of the farms are located in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec. 

The industry peaked in 2008 with the production of 91,000 animals, largely raised for meat exports. 

Last year, outbreaks of CWD were reported in deer, elk and red deer at four farms in Saskatchewan, one in Alberta and one in Quebec. 

A recent industry report by the American Cervid Alliance noted, “To date not one single case of CWD has been found in humans despite tens of thousands of CWD test positive deer and elk being ingested by people.”

Nevertheless, the alliance added, “experimental studies raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to people and suggest that it is important to prevent human exposures.” 

CWD has been seen as a wildlife issue with risks for wild deer. But it is really a public health issue. 

In 2017, Norwegian health authorities warned serious action is required.

“The most important measure for preventing human exposure is to reduce the prevalence of CWD among cervids, and, preferably, to eradicate the disease.” 

*Story corrected July 15 at 8 a.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Food

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