By: Heather Williams

Wild game.  When humanely and responsibly hunted and harvested, is a great way to keep ecosystems in check from overpopulation and add a little something different to our diet.  These non-traditional meats (compared to the more common chicken, beef, and pork consumed in many of our everyday meals) can complement dishes and add a distinguishing taste to your dinner.  Does that mean, scooping up road kill on the side of the road.  Absolutely not!  Though when properly processed and appropriately handled, wild game is safe to consume.

 What Exactly is Wild Game?

Game is a generic term for animals and birds.  Large native game animals in the United States can include antelope, buffalo, bear, deer, elk, moose, reindeer, and wild boar.  Small native game animals in the United States can include alligator, armadillo, beaver, muskrat, opossum, racoon, porcupine, rabbit, and squirrel.  Common game birds in the United States include partridge, squab, quail, pheasant, wild ducks, wild geese, and wild turkey.

Are There Any Risks to Eating Wild Game?

As with any meat, the slaughtering and processing of carcasses can spread disease that might be residing in the animal’s intestinal tract.  For wild game, particular bacteria and parasites may be transmitted to humans by consumption or contact with the animal. There are risks associated with all aspects meat consumption.  For wild game, there are risks inherent in harvesting and dressing in the field, there are risks associated with storage of game meat, and there are risks associated with cooking game meat.  All risks can be overcome with attention to safety and general guidelines.

Common Causes of Illness Associated with Game Animals

Some bacteria on this list may sound familiar, as they are common illness causing organisms in many other meat products.  Others may not be familiar at all.  There are many bacteria, viruses, and parasites associated with game animals.  Here are just a few:

  • Avian Influenza – Though less common in the United States, care should be taken to minimize the risk of exposure of this virus when handling wild foul.
  • Brucellosis – Bison, caribou, elk, reindeer, and wild hogs/boars are common carriers of this disease.
  • Campylobacteriosis – Birds, cattle, dogs, hares, moose, and pigs often carry this bacteria in their intestines.
  • Cryptosporidiosis – A parasite found in the stool of wild and domestic animals.
  • Deer Parapoxvirus – A virus affecting deer, sheep, and goats. A similar disease affecting cattle is called pseudocowpox virus.
  • E. coli – A bacteria found in the intestines of birds, cattle, deer, elk, goats, and sheep. E. coli can also be found in unpasteurized dairy.
  • Toxoplasmosis – This parasite is transmitted by eating raw or undercooked meat, namely venison, lamb, and pork. Unpasteurized milk or milk products is also a high risk food for toxoplasmosis.
  • Trichinellosis – This parasite is commonly found in many wild game animals.

Minimize Risk in the Field

Game safety begins in the field.  Hunters should be educated and trained on tracking and field dressing if they will be performing these tasks.  Hunters should avoid deer or other game that appear sick or acting abnormally, as this could be a sign of illness.  It may not seem like a big deal, but a nocturnal animal out during the day or an animal that is generally skittish that walks up to your camp may have an illness that could be harmful to humans if handled or consumed.  Game animals should be shot with a clean and humane kill shot, preferably that avoids the abdomen.  Not only does an abdominal shot lead to unnecessary pain and suffering of the animal, but may render meat unsafe due to exposure to harmful bacteria in the gut or intestines.

Hunters who are field dressing or butchering should wear heavy protective gloves and, if possible, a mask to avoid potentially aerosolized bacteria from the gut or the blood.  Field dressing is referred to as the process of removing internal organs to preserve meat from animals harvested in the field.  This is an important task to minimize bacterial growth and lower the temperature of the meat.  If not performed properly, the meat will be unsafe to consume.  It is very important to avoid puncturing the intestines, which would spill harmful bacteria all over the meat, also making it unsafe to consume.  This task should be performed within an hour of harvest and chilled within an hour of processing.  Any old wounds or infected areas of tissue should be cut out and discarded as well as the tissue immediately around it.  Even tissue that looks normal could be carrying harmful bacteria.

Clean water and soap, obtained by portable wash stations are necessary to wash hands thoroughly and clean knives properly.  Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling or field dressing wild game or fowl.  Steps should be taken to avoid oral contact with blood, feces, or intestinal contents.

Minimize Risk in Storage

Game meat should be chilled within an hour of processing.  If the meat will be consumed within two to three days, it can be stored in the refrigerator (under 40 ºF).  As with any raw meat, cooked meats and ready to eat foods should be stored separately to avoid cross-contamination.  If not being consumed right away (who can eat a whole deer in two to three days after all), meat cab be safely stored in the freezer for 9 to 12 months if properly wrapped.  Once thawed in the refrigerator, meat should be cooked within one to two days.

Minimize Risk in Cooking

As with cooking any meat, internal temperature should be taken in the thickest part of the meat to ensure appropriate cooking temperature.  Fresh game should reach an internal temperature of 160 ºF and whole game birds should reach an internal temperature of 165 ºF.  For non-heating methods of cooking, such as dehydration used to make jerky, freezing is a method that can reduce some parasites which could reside in the meat.  Jerky should be frozen for 30 days to reduce or eliminate parasites in the meat.  Not all species of parasites are susceptible to freezing.  In fact, some species of Trichinella are resistant to freezing, leaving the meat still potentially infected even after this precautionary step.

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