The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is exposing the public to unnecessary risk by allowing deer and elk meat from farms affected by a contagious disease to end up on consumers’ plates, a group of experts and advocates say.
Chronic wasting disease or CWD, an infection of the central nervous system similar to mad cow disease that is fatal to deer, elk, reindeer and moose, was discovered on a farm in Quebec’s Laurentians region last August, resulting in a cull of 2,789 red deer.
While the 11 carcasses that tested positive for the disease, as well seven others, were destroyed, the rest were allowed to enter the food system, including some 1,000 young animals that had not been tested because tests aren’t sensitive enough to detect CWD in animals under 12 months of age, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The news was a surprise to some experts, including Neil Cashman, a University of British Columbia medical professor who specializes in neurodegenerative diseases spread by prion proteins.
He said that while there’s been no documented case of chronic wasting disease being transmitted to humans, it can’t be ruled out.
“If you’re supplying meat, deer meat or elk meat or whatever from a farm in which animals have tested positive for CWD, if you provide it to the market for human consumption, that’s playing with fire in my opinion,” he said in a phone interview.
He points to an ongoing study that suggests CWD can be spread to other animals, including macaque monkeys, as well as the case of mad cow, which was originally not believed to be dangerous for humans but was later linked to a rare degenerative brain disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob.
He said it’s even possible that doctors might not recognize CWD at first if it did affect a human, because it could take a different form.
“With all this knowledge about how wily prions are, how long they last in the environment, how resistant they are to destruction and degradation, it really behooves us to cut down on potential exposure to CWD,” he said.
Health Canada notes there’s no evidence the disease infects humans, but recommends as a preventative measure that animals known to be infected with CWD should not be consumed, and that hunters should take precautions when handling carcasses of deer, elk and moose.
In an email, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said that allowing the animals from the Quebec farm to enter the food system did not violate that position.
“The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada’s position is that animals and products from animals known to be infected with CWD are prohibited from entering Canada’s food supply,” the agency wrote.
“The meat that was released into the human food chain came from animals which are not known to be infected with CWD.”
The email noted that “CWD is not a known human health or food safety risk, and that there have been no recorded instances of humans being affected by the disease.”
It also said that its policy of allowing animals from CWD-positive farms into the food system only applies to red deer and elk, which have lower rates of transmission than other cervids.
CWD was first detected in Canada in 1996, and has since spread across parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Laurentians deer farm was the first documented case in Quebec.
Since 2014, animals from 21 CWD-infected elk herds have been slaughtered for consumption with the agency’s permission. The CFIA says only adult elks that tested negative were released into the food chain, since there is no market for meat from elks under 12 months.
The agency’s position appears to have divided scientists.
While some have expressed concern over what they see as a lack of caution, two other experts consulted by The Canadian Press said they see no reason to question the policy given that there’s no proof of any risk.
Kerry Mower, a wildlife specialist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, pointed out that humans have been consuming CWD positive deer and elk since at least the 1960s, and have been consuming sheep with a similar disease for hundreds of years with no known transmission.
But Kat Lanteigne, who co-founded an organization that advocates for a safe blood system, was outraged to learn the animals from infected farms were being sent to the food system.
She said the federal government quietly changed its policy in 2014 to allow the practice, leaving consumers and scientists unaware.
“None of the consumers in Canada know there is this infectious prion disease, that is the sister to mad cow, and that animals that could be infected could be ending up on their barbecues and dinner plates,” said Lanteigne, the executive director of Bloodwatch.
In June, more than 30 people, including Lanteigne and Cashman, signed an open letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other senior cabinet ministers, urging them to take greater action to contain the spread of the disease.
The letter claims that the threat is not only to human health but to trade and investment, noting that Norway has already banned hay or straw imports from provinces where the disease is present.
“Despite the lessons of BSE and the dire threat posed by CWD, official policy still allows translocation of live animals, products, and equipment from cervid farms, movement of hunter carcasses, and continued human exposure—in violation of basic principles of science, public trust, and professional ethics,” they wrote.
The signatories advocated for the government to issue emergency directives to contain the spread of the disease, including eliminating deer farms, testing all animals from areas where the disease is present, and boosting funding for research and surveillance.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press