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Duluth, Minn. — It's a Thursday night in Duluth's Gander Mountain sporting goods store. Bill Hesselgrave has drawn a crowd. He's slicing moist pink slabs off a road-killed deer. Hesselgrave does dozens of these trainings each year. This year, he's hearing one concern over and over.
"A day does not go by that someone does not ask me about CWD," says Hesselgrave.
Chronic wasting disease -- a disease that lodges in a deer's brain and spine. It's fatal to deer. Hesselgrave has made a business promoting a bone-free method of deer processing. It's believed to minimize the risk to people of coming in contact with parts of deer that harbor chronic wasting disease.
For a few weeks each autumn, Hesselgrave is in business at his home outside Superior, Wisconsin. Hesselgrave is what's called a garage processor. He custom butchers deer for area hunters.
Hesselgrave doesn't sell meat, he sells a service -- and he doesn't answer to anyone. Strictly speaking, deer processing isn't regulated in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or by the federal government.
And that's not a huge problem, according to some officials. Terry Burkhart is the director of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture's meat safety and inspection division. It licenses and inspects Wisconsin's commercial meat processors. Burkhart says despite having no direct control of deer processing, Minnesota and Wisconsin are still able to regulate a large segment of the game processing industry.
"We regulate the meat processors, and in part of the rules for the meat processors are requirements for them if they process venison," he says.
Burkhart says most of the venison is processed in commercial, regulated businesses like butcher shops and grocery stores. Those businesses are instructed how to keep the public's meat supply uncontaminated by wild game.
"That involves adequate separation, product identification, adequate cleaning ... after venison processing, before you revert to red meat processing, or products being offered for sale," says Burkhart.
Deer processing is a huge business in Wisconsin and also in Minnesota.
"We have some meat processors in the state that will cut up more than 2,000 deer during deer season," says Kevin Elfering, who directs the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's meat, poultry and egg inspection division.
"Many of these garage operations are very clean operations," says Elfering. "A lot of them are professional meat cutters that are cutting up deer for people, so they know what the sanitary requirements are. And they keep a very good facility."
But there are, he says, noteworthy exceptions.
"I've seen some, in my career, that have been deplorable," he says.
|If a barber or a hair stylist is licensed and controlled by the state, isn't it a little unusual that the people who cut up your meat, and give it back and you eat it, are not regulated?|
Doctors in Wisconsin are calling for change. Dr. Richard Olds chairs the Department of Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
"If a barber or a hair stylist is licensed and controlled by the state, isn't it a little unusual that the people who cut up your meat, and give it back and you eat it, are not regulated?" Olds asks.
Chronic wasting disease is known to infect deer and elk. It's never been known to infect a human. But it's unclear if it could, according to Dr. Olds.
"I don't know if humans can get this disease or not. It just seems reasonable to me to decrease the risk of humans getting exposed until we know for sure," says Olds. "We probably won't know for sure for some time."
The doctors are calling for licensing and inspections of all deer processors. They want a ban on putting some deer parts, like brains, into ground venison or sausage. And they want regulations matching restrictions on the British beef industry - an industry shaken by BSE, a disease affecting cows that has similarities to chronic wasting disease.
Kevin Elfering, with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, agrees that it might be time to extend regulation beyond commercial meat processors.
"Because of the concern not only for chronic wasting disease, but for other public health issues -- micro-organisms such as E. coli, salmonella," says Elfering. "Those, I think, are probably more of a concern. I do believe that they should be regulated."
Neither state agency in Minnesota or Wisconsin has proposed new regulations. In each case, it would take new legislation. But Elfering says it's an issue likely to be raised soon.
"There's going to be a lot of discussion about the entire cervid industry at the Legislature this year. We're probably going to provide some testimony. And if the subject comes up, I think that's one of the suggestions that we're going to have," says Elfering.
Meanwhile, health officials hope hunters will choose deer processors who hold a commercial meat license.