One of Wisconsin’s oldest and largest sausage makers told its customers in late August that it will no longer process venison into sausage and other snack-meat products because of chronic wasting disease’s worsening spread in the state’s deer herd.
Silver Creek Specialty Meats Inc., in Oshkosh – which also owns the venerable meat and sausage brands Meyer’s, Fred Busch, R-Line and Jim’s Blue Ribbon – sent a one-page letter to about 1,200 customers Aug. 28 explaining why it quit processing wild venison from deer hunters.
The letter notes CWD has been found in 19 Wisconsin counties, making it difficult for the company to screen out venison from CWD-infected areas. The letter continues: “Consumer safety is our No. 1 concern, and no matter how small the risk (if any) of humans being infected by the disease we are not, and never will be, willing to put profit before the safety and well-being of our customers.”
The decision ends a venison-sausage tradition dating to the 1940s for the company’s R-Line products, and sacrifices about $300,000 in annual business, according to its owners, Bill and Tom Kramlich and Tom’s daughter, Katy Lehman.
Tom Kramlich and his daughter are lifelong deer hunters, and he said they agonized over the decision.
“We’ve followed this issue from the very start, and used to think it would be confined to a relatively small area,” Kramlich said. “We thought by screening all of our venison customers that we could make certain we weren’t taking in venison from that area. Unfortunately, the problem’s gotten a whole lot worse. We no longer feel confident we aren’t taking in venison from CWD areas. Ultimately, we have to be able to sleep.”
Ongoing CWD research by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency also influenced the family, Kramlich said. He’s referring to a study that exposed 18 macaque monkeys to CWD since 2009. So far, five of the monkeys have contracted the always-fatal brain disease. Two got sick by eating CWD-infected meat and one got sick by eating infected brain matter. The other two got sick after their brains were injected with infected materials.
Results aren’t yet in on the other 13 monkeys. The macaque species is genetically closer to humans than squirrel monkeys, which previously were found susceptible to prions, the rogue protein that triggers CWD.
“The public took comfort the past 15 years that there was no scientific evidence of CWD spreading to humans,” Kramlich said. “They’ve never found it in humans, so apparently it can’t spread to humans. I never thought there was a safety issue, but this Canadian study makes a person sit up and take notice.”
Kramlich said another big factor in the company’s decision is that it handled so much venison that it could only offer “batch-processed” products, a common practice of mixing trimmed venison from multiple customers’ deer into large batches for efficient processing. Smaller sausage-makers sometimes offer individual processing, which guarantee customers that venison in their products came exclusively from their deer.
“We can’t make sausage on an individual basis because of the size of our equipment and the batch sizes it requires,” Kramlich said. “We always had to mix our customers’ venison together, but we no longer felt we could do that and still follow state and federal health guidelines.”
Kramlich is referring to guidelines referenced in Wisconsin’s deer hunting regulations, which read:
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that to date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people. However, in the interest of safety, the CDC advises that hunters not consume meat from deer, elk or moose which test positive for CWD. In keeping with this recommendation, the Wisconsin Division of Public Health recommends that venison from deer harvested in CWD-affected areas not be consumed or distributed to others until CWD test results on the source deer are known to be negative.”
Unfortunately, CWD testing in Wisconsin has plummeted in recent years because of budget cuts and the end of in-person deer registration in 2015. From 2002 through 2006 the Department of Natural Resources averaged 25,858 CWD tests annually. Soon after, lawmakers such as former Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford, slashed CWD funding. CWD tests averaged 9,053 from 2007 through 2010, a nearly three-fold decline. Since 2010, the DNR has averaged a record-low 5,545 CWD tests annually, even while documenting record totals of CWD cases, including 447 in 2016.
CWD tests are free but voluntary, and most hunters – even those in CWD-endemic areas – don’t bother with them. Only 10 percent of deer shot in Wisconsin’s four most-diseased counties – Dane, Iowa, Sauk and Richland – were tested in 2016.
Hunters in those counties registered 23,162 whitetails last fall, and provided test samples from 2,350. Of those tested, 411, or 17.5 percent, carried CWD. The infection rates were Dane, 7.3 percent (41 cases); Iowa, 25 percent (220 cases); Sauk, 20.4 percent (90 cases); and Richland, 12.8 percent (60 cases).
Assuming those numbers indicate the counties’ CWD prevalence, untested venison from about 3,537 diseased deer were consumed unknowingly by hunters and their families the past year.
Lehman said she and her father feel frustrated by continued failures to address CWD.
"As far as I’m aware, there is no heightened awareness” at the state-government level, she said.
Lehman said the company’s former venison customers mostly expressed disappointment when reading Silver Creek’s letter.
“They’re sad to see it go, but they’ve seen enough news about CWD to understand,” Lehman said. “They kind of accepted it.”
Kramlich shares their resignation.
“I have always hunted deer, and my daughter has always hunted deer, and we’ve always loved working with venison,” he said.
Still, he said they had to make a decision for their customers and the business.
“With the way the disease has spread, and no certain way to verify where the venison came from or whether it was tested, we had no other choice,” he said.