State wildlife managers have too many deer, and soup kitchen operators have too many mouths to feed. So why not let the state's hungry eat venison?
Maryland deer hunters may soon be asked to help make that possible.
Encouraged by hunters and the success of deer donation
programs in neighboring states, the Department of Natural Resources has reversed past policy and hopes to have a venison donation program in place by the opening of deer hunting season in September.
"We would take all they can give us," said Wayne G. Flickinger, marketing manager for the Maryland Food Bank. "I think venison would be easy to market with anybody."
First, the DNR must resolve public health questions raised by the absence of meat inspection for deer.
But if that succeeds, the DNR's Wildlife Division will seek the cooperation of hunters, meat processors, food banks and other charities in establishing the program.
"There's quite a bit of interest," said Joshua Sandt, director of the DNR's Wildlife Division. "Hopefully, we can have it together by fall."
Similar programs have been set up in more than a dozen other states. Virginia and Pennsylvania together generated more than 83,000 pounds of meat for the needy during the last deer season.
Organizers in those states say food banks and soup kitchens were delighted to have the red meat, because beef is expensive and rarely donated. Wildlife managers like the idea because it motivates hunters to take more deer.
And, because hungry people benefit, organizers say, protests from animal rights groups opposed to hunting have been muted.
Heidi Prescott, outreach director for the Fund for Animals, called the donation programs "a real slick PR campaign by the pro-hunting fraternity to improve their image."
"By refraining from hunting, they could probably buy about 10 times the amount of food and also offer donations of the time they spend out hunting," she said.
The decision to pursue the idea in Maryland is a turnabout for the DNR, which had regarded venison as unsuitable for charities because wild game is killed under highly variable conditions and butchered without government inspection.
Food served in public kitchens must come from an "approved source," said Jeanette Lyon, acting food control chief for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Under current DNR policy, "there isn't any [approved source] for deer."
On the other hand, the state does allow licensed facilities to sell other uninspected game meat, such as raccoon, muskrat and opossum. "The one saving grace is that when these items are cooked, they are generally thoroughly cooked. You have to cook them to death to get them edible," she said.
Food safety may provide an opening for animal rights groups to oppose the program.
"We will check to see they are meeting regulations," said Ms. Prescott.
DNR officials said they will review these issues with health authorities, but the goal now is to make the program work.
Organizers in other states have resolved the inspection issue by enlisting butchers whose facilities are already inspected for slaughtering domestic animals, or by trusting uninspected shops reject spoiled or diseased animals.
Programs in Virginia and Pennsylvania also rely on "Good Samaritan" laws that protect donors to food charities from liability if bad food slips through, except in cases of gross negligence. Maryland has a similar statute.
But not everyone is comfortable with that setup.
"We here in Harrisburg have not been asked, 'Is this an acceptable practice?' " said Duain B. Shaw, food service facilities chief with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.
"A lot of people hunt deer and may not be very familiar with good practices in the handling of carcasses for public consumption," he said. "It's an issue I don't think is settled."
In Maryland, sports and outdoor groups have been enthusiastic about the idea.
Allan Ellis, host of the weekly Maryland Sportsman talk show on WCBM radio, said he is forming a Maryland Deer Hunters Association, in part, to promote and coordinate a meat donation program.
One food charity in Virginia is pleased to have an alternative to poultry and high-fat grades of beef.
"Venison is a low-fat, high-protein meat, and it's healthier from a nutritional point of view than eating beef," said David H. Horne of the Society of St. Andrew, in Big Island, near Lynchburg, which organized the program in Virginia.
Hunters there donated more than 30,000 pounds of meat during the past deer season. That's twice what was anticipated, but only one-half of 1 percent of the season's harvest. This year, Mr. Horne said, "we're optimistically hoping to make it 100,000 pounds."