For many, hunting is much more than a hobby; neither snow, nor ice, nor anything else will stand in the way of the pursuit. For some, it’s just a hobby. But for all, hunting carries risks . . . even if you’re not hunting with a scattershot ex-VP who forgot to take a hunter’s safety course. Most of those risks are readily apparent, given the implements that we hunters take afield, but some are not. As with any food that we eat, the animals that we hunt, whether they be avian or anchored to the ground, can carry more than just teeth and claws that can hurt you.
Diseases that spread from animals to humans, regardless of the route of transmission, are called zoonotic diseases. Many outbreaks of foodborne disease are zoonotic in nature, at least at root. Human errors in processing, handling, and manufacturing aside, contamination of lettuce, milk, or beef ultimately destined for human consumption begins with transfer of the pathogen from animal to food.
Millions of people across the country hunt. Often, the harvested game is the culinary, sometimes ritualistic, centerpiece of family or communal gatherings. Aunts and uncles, neighbors, and even small children and the elderly who have grown up eating wild game partake in myriad preparations, including burgers, steaks, stews, and smoked meats.
People who eat the game that they take–as we all should, if for no other reason than to exhibit appropriate respect for the privilege we enjoy–must take precaution to harvest and prepare the game in a safe manner. This involves more than not taking game with an obvious illness, such as deer with chronic wasting disease (a neurological condition that causes visible deterioration of the animal and behavioral abnormalities), because the truth of the matter is that wild game is not necessarily safer (i.e. not harboring a pathogenic bacteria or virus) simply because it has not been contained in a feedlot.
There are a wide variety of zoonotic diseases that people can acquire from wild game. Pathogens can be contained in blood, muscle, brain tissue, organs, urine, and feces. Just to cite a few examples, wild hogs can harbor brucellosis, oysters can contain vibrio vulnificus, deer and elk can be asymptomatically infected by E. coli O157:H7; and, lest the bird-hunters among us think their quarry is safe because they are not “ruminant” animals, Salmonella bacteria can be found in quail. Even the plague, caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis, can still be found in rodents who have been infected by disease-carrying fleas.
Thus, anyone involved in hunting, or the preparation or consumption of wild game, should be aware that diseases can be acquired from these common game species, and virtually any other wild animal, from their meat, blood, or other tissues.
Plan and act accordingly, from field dressing, to butchering, to preparation and consumption. Non-hunters may not realize the lengths (often literally great geographical distances) that hunters must go to properly field-dress and transport their harvested animal to the point of consumption. Often, 90% of the act of preparing an animal, particularly a large game species such as a bear, moose, or elk, occurs out in the woods, or in the mountains, or some other remote location. The tool that the hunter uses is often just a knife. Intestines and organs must be removed, the cape or hide appropriately taken from the meat, and the meat cut from the carcass and prepared for transport. Quite clearly, there are many critical points at which the meat being prepared for consumption may become contaminated, especially when one considers the many potential routes of infection: eyes, nose, mouth, or even a simple cut suffered earlier in the day.
The Centers for Disease control and Prevention has several recommendations for preparing wild game, whether in the field or elsewhere. Use clean, sharp knives for field dressing and butchering; wear eye protection and rubber or latex gloves when handling carcasses; avoid direct contact between the hands or other exposed skin and the fluid or organs from the wild game; burn or bury inedible parts of the carcass after butchering; wash hands as soon as possible afterward; and clean all tools and reusable gloves with a disinfectant.
This is only half the battle. As with any food item destined for the human food supply, appropriate precautions must be taken from initial contact with the animal through to the point of consumption. This means having appropriate respect for the importance of hand-washing, cross-contamination, cooking to appropriate temperatures, and post-preparation handling. Days in the field, for most of us, are few and far between; with proper attention to just a few basic precautions, and a little knowledge about the risks that animals can pose post-harvest, hunters will always be able to reflect fondly on the entire experience.