Do deer contaminate garden crops through their droppings?
Question: Can rhubarb be eaten even though deer roam through the rhubarb patch?
Amswer: Deer droppings do have the potential to transmit both E. coli and chronic wasting disease (CWD), the latter of which is specific to deer and elk and has symptoms similar to mad cow disease. CWD has been reported in several locations in Pennsylvania, according to the State Game Commission.
There is little evidence that the CWD pathogen is transmissible to people when it comes to consuming deer or elk meat, but the jury is still out. And both the Centers for Disease Control and the Game Commission say that if a harvested animal tests positive for CWD, you should not eat it.
While we know for sure that E. coli can be easily transmitted through fecal to oral contact, again, the jury is still out regarding CWD. Scientists have not ruled out fecal to oral transmission of CWD from deer to humans. That means if you touch contaminated deer droppings and then put your fingers in your mouth, or you touch something that then goes into your mouth, both diseases could possibly be transmitted. However, no cases of this type of transmission have ever been reported when it comes to CWD.
What all this means is that if you encounter any deer droppings in your vegetable garden, including your rhubarb patch, handle them very carefully and avoid eating any fruits or vegetables that came in direct contact with the droppings. Use disposable latex gloves or a shovel to remove the waste and bury it elsewhere in the yard or toss it into the woods. Do not allow the droppings to come into contact with your rhubarb stems and do not use the shovel for other food-related gardening.
While this is definitely extra cautionary when it comes to CWD, especially since there’s little evidence that it’s transmissible to humans, it’s definitely important when it comes to E. coli. Do not handle deer droppings with your bare hands, and even after ridding the rhubarb patch using a shovel, wash your hands very well.
If there are no droppings present in your rhubarb patch, there’s no need to worry about harvesting and eating the stems. Cut and wash the stems as usual before preparing them.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.