June is velveting season on the elk ranches of the United States and Canada. Bulls have to be treated with care - the soft, heavy antler tissue is easily damaged, and a good bull may be carrying as much as 40 pounds.
At the going rate of $70 per pound, nobody can afford a free-for-all in the velveting area. According to instructions on an elk farm Web site, www.wapiti.net, cut-up pieces of sterile inner tube work best as tourniquets, and a double-edged saw is the best tool for cutting off the antlers. Don't forget to "turn antler bottom up to contain blood" and "treat just like a meat byproduct," freezing as soon as possible, "at a 15-degree angle to conserve all blood."
The sale of velvet antler from domestic elk in North America is estimated by its proponents to be a $3 billion industry. Korea is still the primary destination for most velvet products, but promoters have created a demand in the U.S. alternative medicine and nutritional supplement market.
Beginning next month, most of the 4,300 General Nutrition Centers will be carrying elk-velvet capsules made by Natraflex, a company based in Castle Rock, Colo.
"I eat velvet every day," says Natraflex founder Lloyd Riddle. Riddle is an enthusiastic user of his own product, and has endorsements from athletes, such as professional powerlifter Ron Madison and ultra-marathoner Richard Huff.
Velvet is marketed in North America as a remedy for those suffering from arthritis, sexual dysfunction, and joint ailments of all types, and as a supplement for bodybuilders and extreme athletes.
Elk velvet antler, pumped tight with blood and pulsing with hormones, is the most regenerative mammal tissue known, capable of growing over half an inch in one day. According to Dr. George Bubenick, an anatomist at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada, the density of nerve receptors in velvet approaches that of the human cornea, making it one of the most sensitive tissues in existence. It is no wonder that traditional Oriental medicine holds the material in such high regard, or that aging Western athletes would want to check it out.
But for the past several years, the domestic elk industry has been battling a malady called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in its herds, and a new outbreak has affected six elk ranches in Saskatchewan.
Chronic Wasting Disease belongs to a group of brain diseases known as transmissable spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs, a group that includes the so-called "mad cow disease" that destroyed the British beef industry in the early 1990s. Also among the TSEs are scrapie, a disease that has killed sheep for centuries in Europe, and has been recognized in the U.S. for the past 50 years, and Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD), which causes dementia followed by rapid death in human beings.
During the mad cow disaster in England, a new form of CJD began to appear, afflicting younger people than the traditional disease.
Scientists called the new disease "variant CJD" because it leaves a distinctly different pattern of destruction in the brain, a "signature" that can be recognized when brain tissue from a victim is examined.
Variant CJD has killed at least 80 people so far in Europe, and it is linked to the consumption of British beef products that were contaminated with the mad cow infection.
The disease crossed what scientists call "the species barrier" from the infected cattle, to infect some proportion of the millions of people who ate it before anyone realized that such a leap was possible.
As with all TSEs, no one knows the incubation for variant CJD. It cannot be predicted whether the threat to human beings in Europe is over, or just beginning.
There is no TSE researcher working today who will discount the possibility that Chronic Wasting Disease could produce variant CJD in humans, especially if humans are consuming the brains, blood or nerve tissue of infected animals.
No federal agencies regulate the velvet trade. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not monitor the harvest or the handling of the product, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not follow how it is consumed.
Regulation is voluntary
In 1999, South Dakota had 300 head of elk under quarantine for Chronic Wasting Disease. One herd, tested after all of the animals were destroyed, showed an infection rate of 30 percent. Yet, says South Dakota State Veterinarian Dr. Sam Holland, there was nothing to prevent the owners of those animals from selling their velvet.
"We do apprise the owners of the implications of selling velvet while under quarantine," he said, "but we cannot stop them from doing so, because there is no evidence that CWD is present in velvet, or can be passed to humans."
Holland says that in his experience, elk ranchers in South Dakota have all acted on the side of caution. "One producer who had infected elk burned his whole stockpile - thousands of pounds - of velvet. He didn't have to. He wanted to do the right thing."
In Montana, where two herds have been destroyed for Chronic Wasting Disease, Karen Cooper of the Montana Department of Livestock says the department "does not regulate any animal byproduct and therefore does not have any information (about) which farms sell at what time."
Even where regulations are in place, such as Canada, there is no way to test animals for Chronic Wasting Disease until the animals are dead.
At the end of November, 1,500 head of elk from the six infected ranches in Saskatchewan were destroyed. What happened to the velvet that was harvested from those animals in June 2000?
"The animals were not under any kind of quarantine then, so it went into the market," says Dr. George Luterbach, chief veterinarian of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
But Ian Thorleifson of the Canadian Cervid Council says that "partly by luck and partly by design, we are not aware of any velvet that was sold from elk infected now that were not perceived to be infected in June."
In this country, the elk-ranching industry has contributed over $200,000 to wasting disease research, much of the study seeking a test that can determine infection in live animals. Some of the money has gone to Dr. Mary Jo Schmeer, at the USDA facilities in Ames, Iowa, who has been searching for the wasting disease agent in blood samples of infected deer and elk.
"We have detected the agent in blood," she says. "I wouldn't want to be taking any products that contain blood in concentrated form."
In England, she says, "Researchers established the transmission of BSE ('mad cow') to a sheep, from a transfusion of less than a cupful of blood." Schmeer says she has a backlog of over a thousand blood samples from deer and elk, and has no idea when, or if, a reliable test will be discovered.
Dr. Byron Caughey and Dr. Bruce Chesebro work at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a research facility of the National Institute of Health, in Hamilton, Mont. Both men have spent a large part of their lives working on transmissable spongiform encephalopathy diseases, and both have just returned from an international TSE conference in Europe.
Caughey has recently completed an experiment to obtain what he calls "an initial glimpse" of how susceptible to CWD infection humans and traditional livestock might be. "Early results show the possibility of susceptibility to infection," he says. But Caughey is not impressed by the threat of transmission through infected blood.
"Evidence says that a blood-borne transmission is possible, but it would be extremely rare," he says. "But if you are talking about a nerve-borne infection, the potential risk is many orders - maybe millionfold - greater."
How big a danger?
"Playing with fire" is how Bruce Chesebro describes the current trade in velvet. "Everybody talks about how scrapie has been present in sheep for hundreds of years and has never been known to pass to people," he says. "And in England, everybody was hoping that BSE (mad cow disease) would be like scrapie, and pose no threat to humans, but that bubble burst when the variant CJD cases started showing up in young people in 1996. So you've got one TSE that passes to people, and one that doesn't. Will CWD be like scrapie, or like BSE? Nobody knows."
Also, he adds, "People like to say that natural transmission of TSEs has always been rare. But with velvet, we're not talking about natural transmission - you're grinding it up, putting it in capsules, and eating it regularly. That's what I'd call experimental use. It's basically the same thing we do in the lab with mice."
Elk ranchers, velvet promoters, and industry spokespersons, however, want it to be clear that no human being, as far as can be known, has ever contracted variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease from a Chronic Wasting Disease-infected animal.
Thorleifson, of the Canadian Cervid Council, says, "No information is available to suggest that CWD is infective to humans. It is true that Canadian elk producers are concerned regarding the possibility of any negative effect resulting from consumption of an imperfect elk product. That is the justification for the slaughter of over 1,500 Canadian farmed elk, in spite of the fact that only 16 elk from those herds have been found positive for CWD."
Thorleifson adds: "There must be some risk of transmission, but we feel that risk is extremely low."
Steve Wolcott, a Colorado elk producer and chairman of animal health for the North American Elk Breeders Association, also believes that the low numbers of infected animals, and the history of the disease so far, suggest that the risk to humans is minimal.
"We are talking about maybe 13 herds of infected elk," he said, "and six or seven under quarantine now, out of hundreds of herds. Compared to the sheep industry, we are bending over backwards to solve this problem, but because we are a small industry we get attacked from all sides."
He points out that Chronic Wasting Disease has existed in the wild, affecting 1 percent of the elk, and 18 percent of the mule deer in a small but expanding portion of Colorado and Wyoming, and of the thousands of people who hunt there, none have apparently died of variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease.
In Castle Rock, Colo., Natraflex president and founder Lloyd Riddle isn't worried. For one thing, he says, he knows where his velvet is coming from.
"I certainly don't buy from pools. I buy directly from ranches that I know have the strictest standards, so I always know the source."
Riddle adds that of the millions of people eating velvet, "Nobody's out there tipping over. It's just not a problem, and I'd hate to see it represented as one."
On the Natraflex Web site, a browser can purchase the new book by California nutritionist Betty Kamen, titled The Remarkable Healing Power of Velvet Antler.
On her Web site promoting the book, Kamen does not mention TSE diseases but does discuss the question, "Is it safe to use an antler supplement?" Her conclusion? "The question I feel compelled to ask myself is this: is it safe not to use an antler supplement?"
Hal Herring is a free-lance writer in Corvalis, Montana.
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A Web site, mad-cow.org, was created by Dr. Tom Pringle of the Sperling Biomedical Foundation. It is the largest TSE news clearinghouse, with all current and archived articles and scientific research papers about CWD, CJD and BSE.
Copyright 2000 HCN and Hal Herring