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Diseases can poison venison, sicken diners

December 9, 2007
Maybe that deer you shot wasn’t behaving quite right. Or maybe its organs had funny spots or pustules when you field dressed it.

Perhaps the lungs didn’t look right.

Hunters who harvest white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania and others who process venison need to beware: Many scary threats can be lurking in a deer bound for the dinner table.

While most of the animals harvested during the state’s hunting season for antlered and antlerless deer are healthy animals, the possibility always exists that one might be diseased or that improper handling after the kill could contaminate the venison.

According to Dr. David Wolfgang, professor of veterinary science at Penn State University, wild deer do sometimes carry diseases, some apparent, some not so readily detected.

“Almost anything can happen,” he said. “Most animals in the wild, if they are spread out, don’t have infectious diseases, though.

“But, we had someone who had a deer that had a bad leg and it was diseased all through the meat,” Wolfgang said. “We try to avoid anything that could be systemic.”

Wolfgang, a presenter at Penn State University’s Venison 101 program that educates hunters how to safely handle and process the deer meat, specifically talks about the many diseases that could affect the quality and safety of the meat.

“When you have diseases that could spread from one tissue to another, you have to be careful,” Wolfgang said.

“The biggest fear is introducing bacteria while you are field dressing the deer,” he added. “Anything that brings debris from the outside can give bacteria a chance to get started.”

Those diseases that can be introduced include colibacillosis, caused by the bacterium escherichia coli — better known as e coli — and salmonellosis, caused by the salmonella bacteria.

Those also can come from festering wounds found on the deer, such as an infected leg or other body part that is oozing pus, Wolfgang said.

Hunters should use latex gloves while field dressing deer and examine the kill immediately.

“You want to look things over,” he said. “If you see something that looks unusual, you don’t want to spread it. If you are in doubt if something is safe to eat, toss it out.”

Hunters should examine carcasses for external injuries, unusual discharges of pus or other fluids, offensive odors and external parasites.

Injuries can become infected and spoil not just the immediate injured area, but the whole deer.

“If you see something odd, it is odd for a reason and maybe you should have someone check it and and be careful what you do,” Wolfgang said.

Lung tissues that have dark spots on them may be indicators of disease, such as pneumonia. Hunters can contract some infections, such as tuberculosis, from deer just by handling and eating the affected organs, he explained. Swollen livers may be signs of salmonella infections in the deer.

According to Wolfgang, in 1975, a hunter harvested a free-ranging deer that had lesions on its lungs later confirmed to be bovine tuberculosis.

In 1994, another deer was confirmed with the disease and, in 1995, 18 more deer from the same area tested positive.

From 1995 to 1999, 42 percent of deer that tested positive had lesions that hunters could recognize as unusual on lung or chest wall tissue. The lesions are tan or yellow lumps.

“There is zero TB in Pennsylvania, but in Michigan, that case was widespread,” Wolfgang said.

“I think there isn’t too much to be worried about. There are a lot of good, healthy deer running around in the woods in this state,” he said. “But, hunters need to be reminded, if they see something that is not normal, to get someone else to take another look at it.”

Other diseases Wolfgang lists are anthrax, dermatophilosis, brain abscesses, leptospirosis, Lyme disease and brucellosis.

Dr. Catherine Cutter, professor in the Department of Food Science at Penn State, said some diseases are not obvious.

“Staphylococcus infection produces an enterotoxin that can’t be inactivated by cooking, so you can get very sick even if you cook the venison,” she said.

“Even with botulism toxin, you have to boil the meat for at least 15 to 20 minutes to deactivate it. All it takes is enough bacteria to coat the tip of a pin to make you sick.”

But, she said, if hunters keep their kills clean, keep dirt out of the body cavity after field dressing and cool the meat down as soon as possible, it should remain safe, provided the deer isn’t already infected from the inside.

“If you focus on safety, prevent cross contamination, keep things cold and clean, you will have a better shelf life and safer meat,” she said.

Hunters should often clean off their knifes when field dressing, using alcohol prep pads from a pharmacy, or baby wipes.

“Get the carcass cold as quick as possible, get the hide off,” Cutter said. “If you can, put frozen jugs of water in the body cavity to cool the body down quickly from the inside, then take the hide off back at home or at camp if you have to wait to do that.”

Meat should be processed and in the freezer within 48 hours, she said.

Wolfgang said one problem is simply lack of knowledge.

“There is a whole generation of hunters that doesn’t have the experience of butchering their own deer,” he said. “And, they don’t know how to safely handle the meat. We have a generation of people who are used to having their meat come out of the supermarket.”

Article Photos

David Seyler of Loganton removes a portion of a deer’s brain stem and lymph nodes to be tested for CWD, under the direction of Karin Ross, domestic animal health Inspector with the state Department of Agriculture at the Northcentral Region Game Commission offices in Antes Forte Wednesday.



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