By now, everybody who sells or eats food has heard of mad cow disease. Yet mad cow's lesser-known cousin, chronic wasting disease, has the scientific community and government taking a closer look at its potential for harming the food supply.
Like mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, chronic wasting affects the central nervous system, except here, the victims are elk and deer. It first made the news several decades ago when it was discovered in Colorado, and until recently it was confined to the Rocky Mountains. Then cases turned up in Wisconsin and, in March, the disease was found in wild and farmed deer in upstate New York.
This summer, two symposiums dedicated to CWD, one in Madison, Wis., and the other in Syracuse, N.Y., focused primarily on the disease's potential impact on wildlife and the ecosystem. In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Animal Health Monitoring System in Fort Collins, Colo., launched a nationwide survey to learn more about elk and deer producers as well as CWD itself.
"It made sense to ask producers to fill out the questionnaire at the same time they're registering their herds in the certification program," said Suzan Hall, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service public affairs specialist, at the USDA's Riverdale, Md., office.
"It's the first survey of this type nationwide that targets the cervid [deer and elk] industry, and it's aimed at gathering information that may lead to the elimination of CWD in farmed cervids. Its purpose also, in part, is to help cervid producers enhance the marketability of their products."
Meanwhile, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Centennial, Colo., is funding research that looks at the use of a high-temperature, high-pressure system and also enzymes that destroy CWD- or BSE-diseased tissue to safeguard that it will not be introduced accidentally into the food or animal feed chains.
"Research has definitely accelerated in the last two years," said Linda Detwiler, a Red Bank, N.J., veterinarian who was with the USDA for 19 years. "The BSE publicity has helped get money [for CWD research]. We need to know more about the disease."
Individual projects conducted by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service are under way at some state universities. The USDA also is working with states on CWD surveillance and testing programs. In proactive states with mandatory testing, such as South Dakota, the USDA has started to fund the effort.
CWD, BSE and scrapie, a disease of sheep, are all in the same family of disorders, but CWD is closer in characteristics to scrapie than to BSE. Scrapie has been around for two centuries and has never been connected to any human illnesses, nor has it jumped to another species, one source said. So even though CWD is spreading eastward among wild and farmed deer, there's little concern that it will jump to cattle or affect the food supply.
In fact, representatives of the NCBA told SN they don't see CWD as an issue for the beef industry. A few years ago, NCBA conducted extensive research into chronic wasting, thinking there could be lessons learned that could be applied to BSE and also to see if the disease itself posed a threat to cattle herds.
NCBA officials learned there are significant differences between the two diseases. For instance, research shows BSE is transmitted by consuming the BSE-diseased tissue, usually brain, brain stem or tonsils, but CWD is thought to be passed on via secretions and excretions, and therefore can be transmitted through the environment.
The good news is that CWD appears to be species-specific.
"We have looked into it, and I really don't think CWD is a beef issue at all based on the information and advice our scientists have given us," said Randy Irion, NCBA's director of retail marketing services. "The more scientists learn about CWD, the more they believe the possibility -- and it's only ever been a possibility -- that it could leap to a domestic cow herd" is extremely slim.
In earlier research, NCBA sought to determine whether CWD could be passed on from diseased deer to calves and older cattle by putting them together. No matter how radical the experiment, not one cow or calf -- and they were tracked through the incubation period -- contracted the disease.
"You would think that by having livestock in conjunction with those sick animals, we'd have some type of transmission, and we haven't," said Bo Reagan, vice president, research and knowledge management, for NCBA.
"We've done a lot of work where we've had cattle living in the same pens with animals that have CWD. We put animals in areas where CWD deer and elk were confined, and there was no transmission. We've actually taken brains from infected animals and have fed those to cattle, and we're seeing no transmission. The thing you have to understand about CWD is that it's completely different from BSE," Reagan said.
While CWD is not apt to impact the beef supply, it's possible the disease could affect exotic meats. That possibility, however, is lessened as testing for CWD becomes mandatory in some states.
"Deer and elk producers should know, too, that there is inexpensive testing available to them," Reagan said. "They should contact their state wildlife department or state department of agriculture for information."
A handful of retailers that carry venison and elk told SN they're not worried about the disease. Retailers said they know and trust their suppliers.
"They're regulated just as much as the beef industry is, and my supplier assures me that all his deer and elk are tested," a Midwest retailer said.
Granted, venison and elk meat, like emu and ostrich, represent a tiny market. Yet the small size could work to make the product particularly safe, because testing is not as cumbersome as it is on a huge farm or ranch.
One South Dakota elk producer told SN that every one of her slaughtered animals is tested by a state veterinarian -- and must be found negative -- before the meat can go to market. She used to pay for the testing, but after a recent infusion of funding from the USDA, it is now free in her state.
The funding became available to the state within the last four months, said Linda Schneider, co-owner of elkmeatshop.com, Watertown, S.D.
"We already had a state requirement that every elk, if its meat were going into the commercial market, had to be tested," Schneider said.
Now that funds are available for testing, Schneider has begun to expand her processing facility. She'll increase the size of her herd and buy elk from other farms now that CWD tests don't cost her anything.
"By the end of the year, we expect to have expanded our processing facility and our business by 100%," she said. She's now selling elk meat via the Web site and supplies one restaurant.
In addition to the small size of many exotic food-animal operations, there may be a slightly different philosophy among the producers that bodes well for people who eat exotic meats, one source said.
"Most boutique meat producers in this area have made their money elsewhere," said Geoff Latham, owner and president of Nicky USA, the processor and distributor of exotic meats supplying Rudy's IGA and other supermarkets, restaurants and specialty stores nationwide. "This is more like just something they want to do. I know these guys would rather put down an old or unhealthy animal and bury it, rather than send it to market."
The relatively small size of herds is also a plus, since it makes testing and traceability fairly easy, Latham said.