Road kill for dinner? Well, not exactly. When responsibly hunted and humanely harvested, wild game can help keep ecosystems from becoming over populated and allow the more adventurous types to “live off the land.” Wild game can add a little something different to your hum-drum dinner, but care should be given to maintain safety. Just like any other meat.
While you might be able to find some exotic meats at certain specialty shops, let’s talk about sourcing food like our ancestors. The good old-fashioned way…
Wild Game. What is It?
The term “game” is given as the generic term for animals or birds. Large native game in the United States are animals such as antelope, buffalo, bear, deer, elk, moose, reindeer, and wild boar. Small native game includes: alligator, armadillo, beaver, muskrat, opossum, racoon, porcupine, rabbit, and squirrel. Game birds commonly associated in the United States include partridge, squab, quail, pheasant, wild ducks, wild geese, and wild turkey. Game and raised poultry are often very different in taste.
Talk to Me Straight. What Are the Risks?
Wild game meat is not all that different than commercial or farm raised meat animals. The slaughtering and processing of the carcasses can spread diseases that could be naturally occurring in the animal’s intestinal tract. With wild game, additional risk factors arise when particular parasite and bacteria are harbored by the animal than can be transmitted to humans by contact or consumption.
Risk factors are inherent at each step in the process but can be overcome with attention to those risks and appropriate safety measures. There are risks associated with harvesting and dressing in the field, there are risks associated with storage of the meat product, and there are risks associated with cooking the game meat.
Common Illnesses Transmitted by Game Animals
While many of the illnesses transmitted by game animals are common to foods we may be more familiar to, others could be something you may not have heard of. While this list is not entirely inclusive of all of the bacteria, viruses, and parasites you may find in game animals, it’s a start.
Avian Influenza is associated with wild foul. Though this virus is less common in the United States, exposure should be minimized.
Brucellosis is common among bison, caribou, elk, reindeer, and wild hogs/boars, though you have heard of this infection associated with cows and cattle.
Campylobacteriosis is the illness associated with infection with Campylobacter bacteria. Birds, cattle, hares, moose, and pigs often carry this bacterium in their intestinal tract.
Cryptosporidiosis is the illness associated with infection with the Cryptosporidium bacterium. This is a common parasite found in the feces of both wild and domestic animals.
Deer Parapoxvirus is a virus that affects deer, sheep, and goats. A disease known as pseudocowpox can affect cattle.
E. coli is found in the intestines of many animals, including game animals such as: birds, cattle, deer, elk, goats, and sheep. This bacterium can also be found in unpasteurized dairy.
Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that infects venison, lamb, and pork. Consuming raw or undercooked meat is a primary means of transmission, though unpasteurized milk or milk products can also be a high-risk for toxoplasmosis.
Trichinellosis is a parasite found in many game animals and harmful to humans.
Safety Begins in the Field
Wild game safety begins at the source. In the field. Before embarking on tracking and field dressing, hunters should be educated and trained so that they can perform the appropriate tasks safely.
Hunters should choose their prey carefully. Avoid wild game that appears sick or acting uncharacteristically, as they could be sick and pass on that illness. If a nocturnal animal is seen out during the day, that is a big red flag. If an animal known to be skittish walks right up to you or in your camp, they could be sick and worse yet, contagious.
The kill shot should be carefully placed. It should be clean and humane, and away from the abdomen. This serves two purposes. First, it prevents unnecessary pain. Additionally, an abdominal shot may render the game meat unsafe for consumption. Harmful bacteria reside in the gut and intestines of all animals. An injury could rupture this sepsis and infect the meat.
Heavy duty protective gloves and, if possible, a mask is important when field dressing or butchering wild game. Field dressing is referred to as the activity in the field that involves removing internal organs and preserving the meat from game harvested in the field. If not done correctly, the meat will be unsafe for consumption. Gloves help protect the hands from exposure and sharps, while the mask protects breathing in aerosolized bacteria from the animals’ gut or from blood.
Extreme care should be taken to avoid puncturing the intestines. Doing so will cause harmful bacteria to spill all over the meat, contaminating it beyond reasonable risk. Field dressing should take place within an hour of harvest and chilled within an hour of processing. Old wounds or infected areas should be excised, as well as the tissue immediately around it.
Set up a portable wash station with clean water and soap. This is essential to wash hands thoroughly and clean knives appropriately. It should go without saying, but I am going to say it anyway. Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling or field dressing wild game or fowl. Avoid oral contact with bodily fluids to reduce the risk of exposure to harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Storage Is Key
As with any meat product, safe storage of game meat is critical to reduce the risk of infection. Game meat should be refrigerated within an hour of processing. Mean can be refrigerated at temperatures below 40 ⁰F if it will be consumed within two to three days. Otherwise, store in a freezer for 9 to 12 months. Once thawed, meat should be cooked within one to two days. Just like any other raw meat, game meat should be stored away from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid cross-contamination.
Just as you would with any meat product, internal temperatures should be assessed to determine if the food is completely cooked. Wild game is no different. The thermometer probe should be inserted in the thickest part of the meat to ensure proper temperature is reached. A general guideline for internal temperature in game meat is 160 ⁰F for most game and 165 ⁰F for game birds.
If dehydrating, such as for making jerky, cold pasteurization is your best bet. Freeze jerky for 30 days to reduce or eliminate parasites in the meat. A word of caution though. Not all parasites are susceptible to freezing. In fact, Trichinella will still survive after 30 days frozen.
To Hunt or Not to Hunt…
Whether you want to catch your own food or buy it from a grocery store, food handling and safety are paramount when it comes to consuming and exposure. So, whether you decide to hunt. Or not to hunt. Observe these key safety measures to minimize the risk of infection and illness.
By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributor (Non-Lawyer)