Is Deer Meat Dangerous?

My family enjoys wild venison as our only source of red meat. Am I correct in assuming that recommendations to cut down on consumption of red meat do not apply here? The deer we eat are not taken in agricultural areas, so they are not exposed to pesticides.

– September 8, 2005

Originally published 12/06/2004

Nutritionally, deer meat (venison is a broader term that also applies to meat from elk, moose, caribou and antelope) is healthier than beef. A three-ounce serving provides only 134 calories and three grams of fat, including only one gram of saturated fat. Beef gives you 259 calories for the same three-ounce serving, and 18 grams of fat, including seven grams of saturated fat.

However, there are some concerns about eating deer meat that go beyond fat content. A disorder called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is spreading among deer in a number of states. This always fatal illness is a degenerative brain disease similar to Mad Cow Disease, also known as BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). CWD is another transmissible spongiform encephalopathy caused by prions, abnormal protein molecules that aren’t destroyed by cooking, freezing, or usual methods of disinfection. So far, there is no evidence that CWD can be passed from deer to humans. The disease has been around for more than 20 years, during which time many hunters must have consumed meat from infected animals, but no cases of human CWD have yet appeared.

That does not mean that transmissions can’t occur. A number of studies are now underway to determine for sure that humans cannot get CWD from eating venison from infected deer. In the meantime, if you or your family hunt, don’t kill and eat any animals that appear sick. If there is any question, bring samples of venison in to wildlife officials for testing. Some other precautions:

  • Don’t eat the eyes, brain, spinal cord, spleen, tonsils, or lymph nodes of any deer.
  • Wear rubber or latex gloves when dressing or butchering deer.
  • Bone out the meat and remove all fat and the weblike membranes attached to the meat. This will also remove lymph nodes.
  • Contact wildlife officials in your state to find out if CWD exists in the deer population, and if so, follow any recommended precautions.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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