It’s hunting season, and just like hunters need to be well trained in gun safety to avoid accidents, hunters also need to be well trained in food safety to avoid foodborne illnesses. 

Those who field dress animals, fish and birds are often unaware of the potential risks associated with foodborne pathogen contamination. As with any perishable meat, raw or undercooked game meat can contain harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli

Contamination of meat or fish can occur through the initial wound as well as during field dressing, handling and transport.

Another huge food safety concern is cross-contamination. Even if proper technique is used while dressing or butchering, surfaces and utensils can easily become contaminated from microscopic amounts of pathogens found in wild game.

Improper handling or lack of temperature control allows pathogens the opportunity to grow, resulting in highly contaminated meat with serious health risks.

The environment and location that the hunter harvests adds another source of potential contamination. 

Here are some tips from Penn State’s Extension Service on how to minimize risks while field dressing wild game:

Clean hands and surfaces

  • Plan to take paper towels or plastic to place down as a barrier between the ground and tools, minimizing the risk for cross-contamination during field dressing. A plastic drop cloth or new tarp serves as a great barrier. 
  • Carry disposable plastic gloves. Always consider protecting yourself from the possible risks of contracting a foodborne pathogen while field dressing, especially if you have any open wounds on your hand. Even a tiny opening from a hang nail is enough to allow infection from pathogens and parasites. 
  • Carry pre-packaged alcohol wipes to wash your hands before, during and after removing the entrails. 

Temperature control

  • When the outside temperature is above 41 degrees F, consider taking coolers packed with either bags or blocks of ice. Packaged dry ice is a good option. 
  • If you’re working with small game, remove the hide as quickly as possible to allow the carcass to cool quickly when surrounded by ice. 
  • Large game should have the hide removed quickly after harvest if the outside temperature is above 41 degrees F. 
  • The worst practice is wrapping large game in plastic or a tarp to keep it clean when transporting it. Wrapping the carcass only traps the heat, leading the internal temperature of the meat to remain in the temperature danger zone. If at all possible, pack the internal cavity with ice to cool down the carcass. 
  • The longer you let the carcass remain at temperatures above 41 degrees F from the time of harvest till the time of processing, the greater the risk for foodborne pathogens to grow and become dangerous. 

After the harvest

  • The carcass should be cut within seven days after harvest if it was chilled rapidly and cold temperatures maintained. The sooner the better if warmer temperatures prevail. 
  • For best flavor, limit fresh venison to eight months of frozen storage and seasoned and cured venison to four months of frozen storage. 

Infected animal and food safety

Chronic wasting disease
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a prion disease that affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose. It has been found in some areas of North America, including Canada and the United States. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that hunters should try to minimize the risk for exposure to the CWD and consult with their state wildlife agencies to identify areas where CWD occurs and continue to follow the advice provided by public health and wildlife agencies.

The agency also advises hunters to avoid eating meat from deer and elk that look sick or test positive for CWD. 

Food safety issues regarding roadkill are not widely discussed in traditional food safety circles. However, the risks that exist with roadkill are similar to those from hunting wild game. Even if you see an animal hit and immediately pick it up there can be problems.

If an animal was hit, the force of being hit by a car can cause internal damage that being shot through the head or the heart — that killing with a gun or bow and arrow — wouldn’t cause. This means that the chance for bacterial contamination is a bigger concern, because gut spillage from a ruptured bladder or torn intestines is very possible. 

As with all food safety situations, it’s always better to err on the side of safety. 

State by state rules vary on the legality of taking home roadkill. But though this might sound odd, if you hit a deer, you can ask the responding officer if you can take it and they will often write a permit for you to take the deer. 

The deer generally will not count against a hunter’s annual tag limit.

More information
The next time you go hunting, start thinking about the safety of the meat you harvest while you prepare for your trip. 

As all hunters know, it takes a lot of work, time and patience to have a successful hunt. The last thing you would want is to ruin the meat or end your hunt with foodborne illness. 

For more information on how to field dress various animals and food safety tips, visit the PennState Extension here.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)