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Disease, good flavor concern deer hunters
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Deer hunters across the country are becoming concerned about Chronic Wasting Disease, and while Mississippi deer appear to be disease-free, hunters are urged to take precautions to see that it stays that way.
Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, attacks the central nervous system of members of the deer family, particularly deer and elk. It belongs to the class of communicable diseases that includes mad cow disease and scrapie. CWD causes long-term degeneration of the brain, resulting in abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death.
Ben West, wildlife specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said infected deer have severe weight loss, little interaction with other animals, a droopy posture, excessive salivation and urination, and difficulty walking. The disease may take one to five years to fully develop, but it is always fatal to the animal.
"CWD is a very real threat to the deer populations in Mississippi and elsewhere, but there is no evidence to suggest that it can be transmitted to humans," West said. "All public health officials have indicated that venison from infected animals is safe for human consumption."
Scientists are still working to learn more about the disease, and there is some disagreement about its cause and spread. West said most scientists believe it is caused by a prion, or an abnormal form of a cellular protein. Once in the body of the host animal, it stimulates the production of other abnormal proteins in the central nervous system and lymphoid tissues.
West said CWD is assumed to be transmitted by feces, urine, saliva or other body fluids. It is resistant to heat and decomposition and can persist long in the environment.
"Most scientists agree that while CWD can be transmitted directly from animal to animal, it also can be indirectly transmitted from the environment to animals," West said.
CWD was first diagnosed in mule deer in Colorado in 1967. It has since spread to several U.S. states and to Canada. Last year, it was discovered in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Alberta, Canada. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks will test several hundred white-tailed deer in the state this hunting season for CWD.
To prevent the spread of the disease to Mississippi, do not import live or dead animals to the state. It is assumed that unnaturally high deer concentrations encourage disease transmission, so supplemental feeding and overpopulated deer herds may hasten the spread of the disease.
Mississippi hunters can still enjoy their outings, but they should take a few precautions.
"Do not shoot, handle or consume any animal that appears to be sick or exhibits the symptoms of Chronic Wasting Disease," West said. "Wear latex gloves when field dressing your deer, and avoid cutting through bones. Remove fat and connective tissues to avoid lymph nodes."
Do not saw through bones or cut into the brain or spinal cord. Do not handle or eat the brain, spinal cord, spleen, lymph nodes or eyes. Discard all carcass material, including the head, in a pit dug for the purpose. Wash hands after handling the meat, and disinfect knives and other processing equipment in a 50 percent bleach solution for at least one hour.
If the deer is processed professionally, request that the meat be boned out and the animal processed individually, without meat from another deer being added.
Since much is still unknown about CWD, experts advise hunters to follow these precautions until more is learned.
Anyone who suspects an animal may be infected with the disease is asked to immediately contact the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks at (601) 432-2400.
Once hunters have successfully bagged a beauty, a few preparations can ensure the results are enjoyed on the dinner table. The wild taste some meat has typically results from improper care of the game.
Melissa Mixon, Extension food safety specialist, said field dressing is the most important step in preserving the flavor of the meat.
"For the best quality, bleed and field dress wild game as soon as possible after killing," Mixon said. "This is crucial for big game, but also important for medium and small game. Wash the inside of the carcass when finished and keep it clean in transport from the field."
Temperatures above 40 degrees are meat's worst enemy. Place small game in an ice chest immediately, and place larger game on ice or in a large cooler as soon as possible. Prop carcasses open so air can circulate. Do not pile warm birds in a mass.
With large animals, skin the carcass if the temperature is expected to be above freezing the first night after the kill. Use cheesecloth or light cotton bags to keep it clean and protected from insects. In colder weather, the hide can be left on the game until it is ready for butchering.
Internal temperatures should reach 40 degrees or below within 24 hours.
Mixon said most properly wrapped game meats can be frozen for about a year and still retain their flavor. Most of the game's "wild taste" is from the fat, so trim this off before cooking.