Newly funded: With focus on CWD, University researchers investigate best practices for detection, decontamination of venison processing equipment

October 8, 2021

There's a growing concern that meat from chronic wasting disease-positive cervids like white-tailed deer could pose a risk to human health, highlighted recently by the classification of  that segment as unfit for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Officials estimate that people consume about 15,000 CWD-positive deer each year, a figure expected to rise by 20 percent annually as CWD spreads. And it’s not just humans who consume it: venison byproduct is also prevalent in a variety of pet foods. Despite the preceding three observations, there are currently no meat-processing regulations in place to mitigate the (as-yet understood low) risk of CWD transferring to humans via consumption of venison. There has never been a case of CWD detected in humans, but experts say the risk is not zero.

Necessity being the mother of invention, a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine has received $223,000 in state funding to develop best practices for detection and decontamination of CWD during venison processing—a critical first step in developing widespread testing protocols for the industry. 

The scientists will look at archived muscle and lymph node samples from 35 deer while taking a three-fold approach in this study. First, they’ll measure how much CWD-positive prion load is on affected equipment; next, they’ll assess how infectious that prion load is; finally they’ll investigate which techniques work best to disinfect meat-production equipment and surfaces to arrive at best practices. They then would share the best practices with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to assist with the establishment of food-safety practices aimed at preventing CWD prions from entering the food chain. Ultimately, the goal is to standardize those practices industry-wide.

The team, led by Peter Larsen, PhD and co-director of the Minnesota Center for Prion Research and Outreach, and Davis Seelig, DVM, PhD, DACVP, has already harnessed the highly sensitive RT-QuIC test to detect CWD prions in venison cuts; and through ongoing collaborations with prion experts like Creighton’s Jason Bartz, they’ve discovered prions can stick well to particular surfaces used in the meat-processing industry. Bartz will serve as an adviser on this study.

The project, which began this year and will continue through May of 2023, was funded by the Rapid Agricultural Response Fund via the Minnesota Legislature.


Venison cuts of chops and chuck roast, frozen, wrapped, and labeled on a counter
Photo by Mike Oakes