Q. My dad and I both hunt deer and we have completely substituted venison for beef in our house. I’ve always heard that venison is leaner and healthier than beef, but are there any hidden risks?
A. You’re right about the nutritional profile of venison. Like most wild game, deer meat is leaner and more nutrient-dense than meat from domesticated livestock. And there may be some environmental benefits to eating wild game as well. Instead of supporting a less-than-sustainable livestock industry, you’re helping to manage an out-of-control deer population. Unfortunately, there is a fly in the ointment.
About ten years ago, a disease similar to mad cow disease (the deer version is known as CWD) was detected in the wild deer population in Wisconsin. As far as I know, CWD has not been found in any other wild herds, but scientists expect that this will only be a matter of time. And although mad cow disease has been implicated in some cases of human disease, we don’t yet have any evidence that CWD has been able to “jump” to our species. (Again, however, some scientists believe that this is only a matter of time.)
The Problem with Prions
Mad cow, CWD, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (which is the human version) are all caused by prions, mutant proteins that infect the brain of the victim. Unlike bacteria or parasites, which can be killed by proper cooking, prions are virtually impossible to destroy–which is what makes these prion diseases so scary.
Whether all of this is enough to put you off your venison is going to be a matter of your personal tolerance for risk. It would appear that only a small percentage of wild deer are infected. Your chances of exposure are obviously higher if you’re in Wisconsin and if you eat venison more frequently. That said, the incidence of Creutzdfeldt-Jakob disease in Wisconsin, where folks eat a lot of venison, is no higher than it is anywhere else in the country. At least not yet.
The University of Wisconsin produced a thorough and non-hysterical summary of what is known about this disease, the likelihood of exposure, and steps that can be taken to reduce your risk should you decide to continue to consume venison. Give it a read. Give it some thought. Let me know what you decide.