For hunters, a health warning

SUN JOURNAL

Trichinellosis: The CDC says undercooked wild game - mostly black bear meat - has become the chief cause of the disease in this country.

July 21, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Marylanders might see the black bear as a noble creature of the forest, a dangerous pest or a hunting trophy. But federal health officials now regard it as a menu hazard.

Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say improperly cooked wild game - mostly black bear meat - has become the leading cause of human trichinellosis in the United States.

And with more bears and bear hunters in the woods - possibly including Western Maryland this fall-the risk might grow.

"Increased local bear populations, combined with the popularity of bear hunting in the northeastern United States and Canada might contribute to increasing cases of Trichinella infection," according to an editorial note accompanying an article in last week's issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Trichinellosis - also known as trichinosis and long associated with pork - is caused by eating raw or undercooked meat infected with larvae of a roundworm called Trichinella.

Victims suffer fever, facial swelling, and weakness, pain and swelling in the muscles. Cardiac and neurological problems or even death can follow severe infections. Oral medication kills the worms, and corticosteroids will ease inflammation. But fatigue and diarrhea might last for months.

Maryland's first legal bear season in 52 years will open Oct. 25 if a legislative review panel endorses regulations proposed by the Department of Natural Resources. Animal rights groups have protested the hunt. A decision is expected this month.

As proposed, the two-part season would run Oct. 25-30 and Dec. 5-10. As many as 30 black bears in Garrett County and part of Allegany County could be taken by the luckiest among 200 hunters selected by lottery.

State game officials say they plan to warn hunters of the risks of eating bear meat. "We will make available a hunter's guide that discusses not only food preparation and carcass handling, but also safety issues and some of the elements and ethics of bear hunting," said Paul Peditto, the director of the DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service.

"There should be no question about how seriously we take these issues and work to educate the public at large," he said.

But safe-cooking guidelines distributed to hunters may not be enough to prevent illness, the CDC cautioned.

"The meat from hunted animals is often given away and eaten by persons who are unaware of the need to cook the meat thoroughly enough to kill larvae," the report said.

And because bear meat and other game tend to be very dark, consumers may not recognize by its color when the meat is sufficiently cooked.

To kill the larvae, the CDC says, meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 170 degrees, or until muscle fibers are easily separated.

Trichinellosis was once a fairly common consequence of eating pork that was not thoroughly cooked. Domestic swine acquired the larvae from eating infected animal products or barnyard rodents. But improvements in swine production have made pork-related infections rare.

These days the CDC hears of only about a dozen U.S. cases of Trichinella infection each year. But a CDC study in 2003 found that wild game had become the predominant source. Of 72 cases reported to the CDC between 1997 and 2001, 52 could be traced to their meat source. Of those, 31 were linked to wild game, including 29 caused by bear meat.

The disease has also been traced to more exotic fare - including cougar jerky and the meat of foxes, dogs, wolves, horses, seals and walruses.

In New York state last year, 1,850 bears were reported shot by hunters. Cooking instructions were distributed with each bear license, but not everyone got the message.

The CDC said a 54-year-old Franklin County man was hospitalized in early November, suffering from sweating, fever, weakness, a rapid heartbeat, diarrhea, weight loss and a dry cough. He told doctors that he had eaten about 2 pounds of "nearly raw" bear meat during the two weeks before he got sick, the CDC reported. His kill had been custom-butchered and frozen for a week.

Doctors found Trichinella antibodies in his bloodstream. State wildlife pathology officials took 9 pounds of bear meat from the man's freezer and found as many as 48 larvae per gram of bear meat tested. (A gram equals .035 ounce.)

In October 2003, a man and a woman in Claiborne County, Tenn., were stricken by fever, chills, aches and pains, and facial swelling more than a month after they shared a bear meat barbecue. What they didn't grill they froze, and they continued to eat it during September.

Investigators recovered the remaining frozen meat and counted 350 to 400 larvae per gram.

All three victims were treated and recovered fully, the CDC said.

Thorough cooking will normally kill the parasites. But the Tennessee couple told investigators that they liked their bear steaks medium-rare. Four dinner companions who ordered theirs well-done did not get sick.

The MMWR editorial note also said proper freezing will kill Trichinella spiralis - the type usually found in pork. But the Trichinella nativa found in bear and other game is freeze-resistant. It can remain viable after months or even years in the freezer.

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