Learn What to Look for in Processing & Cooking Wild Game - Better Safe than Sorry
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Count me among the crowd that labels themselves as “locavores,” preferring to eat locally produced and, often, personally “sourced” food. Hunters are the original “locavores,” experts in getting and sharing the lean, nutritious meat of free-ranging wildlife.
Collecting, processing, eating and sharing your locally sourced food comes with responsibilities. Remember, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector aren’t spot checking animals you take for your own consumption. There is a bit of “diner beware” element to noshing on wild critters.
A couple personal anecdotes help explain.
In January 2018, I shot a Canada goose in Maryland, brought it home and prepared to fillet out the breasts, and remove the legs and thighs for later eating. Upon cutting through the skin, I saw that the meat looked lighter than usual and felt a little softer. I closely inspected and saw fine, milky white lines running with the grain. They were pervasive.
Now, some might simply smell the meat and say, “Eh, good enough,” but an experience I had with a white-tailed deer caused me to discard the bird.
I process my own deer, boning out all the meat and cutting it into primal and sub-primal cuts. One late Friday afternoon in mid-December four years ago, I took a mature buck with a nice enough rack, but very light body weight. It was clearly a hemorrhagic disease survivor. Each hoof had the cracked, damaged look that shows up after they began sloughing away due to the fever-intensive disease. Deer can recover from the disease and their meat can be fine.
I’ve processed hundreds of deer. This meat looked weird. Hundreds of milky, grayish-white lines less than a quarter of an inch long and about as wide as an extremely fine pencil mark aligned with the muscle grain. Weird isn’t good when it comes to meat. I finished boning out the deer and emailed multiple, close-up photos to wildlife biologists, including Matt Knox, deer program manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, asking their opinion.
The meat wasn’t quite as firm as some deer I’ve processed, but I wouldn’t call it mushy. It didn’t smell as though it was rotting or otherwise inedible. As a test, I sliced a couple ½-inch pieces of backstraps and tenderloins, heated olive oil in the skillet and fried the pieces unseasoned.
They tasted fine. The next day, two pounds of front shoulder meat went into a savory, long-simmered chili that made fine football watching fare.
Knox’s return email arrived early next week, saying, “Ken, I would not eat that meat.”
Uh-oh - too late!
Knox had consulted with VDGIF’s Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Megan S. Kirchgessner and shared, “Our best guess without looking at these lesions under a microscope is a protozoan parasite called ‘Sarcocystitis.’”
While the meat could probably be eaten if cooked to well done, or greater than 165 degrees Fahrenheit, Knox recommended not eating it.
He attached photos and text from a book about wildlife diseases and parasites. One image showed meat from an infected rabbit. It looked exactly like the deer meat. I later learned the parasite is also found in some wild ducks. The resulting condition has even been nicknamed “rice breast.” I think this was also the issue with the meat in the goose.
Kirchgessner followed up to explain, “Sarcocystitis can be passed from white-tails to humans. It is not usually transmitted during field dressing or butchering, but instead when the meat is under-cooked and consumed.” But, she added, “Sarcocystitis usually affects the GI tract of humans and does not travel into the muscle as it does in deer.”
Thankfully, nothing seemed to have percolated in my digestive tract and any danger passed, literally. I recalled past hunting camps where meals of fresh meat was served medium rare the night the animal was killed. It hit home that bad things might happen if wild game is inappropriately handled or tainted with bacteria or some organism.
Many hunters love to dine on their fresh kills, both at home and in camp. It’s a way to celebrate a successful hunt. Knox says it’s a, “bad idea.” An anecdotal example of why it can be a bad idea is also gleaned from the experience of Steven Rinella, host of the popular “MeatEater” television show. Rinella and several members of their party had shot a black bear. They cut some meat from the bear and cooked it over a fire. A few weeks later, a few of them began aching. They had been infected with trichinosis, which bears potentially carry. They underwent lengthy treatment and are, apparently, fine now, but lessons are there to be learned.
Tips on avoiding eating stuff that might hurt you:
The safest first step is to freeze the meat, ideally down to -4 degrees Fahrenheit, for a couple days. This kills parasites such as sarcocysts and the equally bad or worse ones that cause toxoplasmosis. Freezing doesn’t kill most bacteria. It just goes dormant and begins multiplying when meat is thawed and reaches about 40 degrees.
Beware some deer jerky preparations. Knox calls it “Russian Roulette.” Most dehydrators don’t get meat anywhere near the temperature level required to kill bad organisms. Make jerky after the deer has been frozen for a week or two.
Cook meat to 165-degrees Fahrenheit temperature to kill bacteria. This is especially important with any kind of ground meat where surface bacteria can get mixed into the entire product. On cuts such as roasts or anything like backstraps, a good, hot searing of the meat’s exterior (see top photo) will kill surface bacteria.
Wear protective gloves while field dressing. Careful handling of the animal as soon as it’s killed helps prevent transmission of any infectious particles. A cut to your fingers or hands is another easy path to transmission.
Organ meat is more likely to harbor infectious particles than muscle. Certain organs, most notably kidney and liver, may also store heavy metals or other toxins. Cook all organ meats thoroughly. I used to eat deer liver, but now stick to deer heart - just because...
Beef Carpaccio, essentially raw, marinated beef, is a popular dish in some countries. I’ve made a variation with thinly sliced raw venison topped with capers and salt, then drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice. Any future efforts along this line will involve meat that has been previously well-frozen. A quick, high-heat searing may be used for additional protection.