While urban dwellers' thoughts turn to pumpkin spice lattes, many in our rural communities begin to plan traditional fall hunts. In the United States, game meats are not required to be inspected by a state or federal agency when the hunters consume the meat. In most states, wild game species that may be legally hunted may be harvested only for personal consumption. With no third-party oversight, hunters and trappers must take personal responsibility in handling, processing, storing, and transporting game meats to guarantee wholesomeness and safety.
Wild game, like any meat, requires rapid, safe, and sanitary handling postmortem to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli O157:H7. Food safety begins in the field after the deer is “harvested.” Immediately removing the entrails, termed field dressing, helps to cool the carcass allowing air into the body cavity. Here are some helpful tips from the Official Pennsylvania Online Hunter Safety Course:
- Wear latex or nitrile gloves to protect you from animal diseases.
- Field dress immediately.
- Skin the animal as soon as possible to allow the carcass to cool and reduce contamination from the hide.
- Use available shade to help cool the carcass.
- Hang the deer if possible.
- Dispose of entrails responsibly. Don’t leave them by a road or residence where they could be dragged home by the family dog. Don’t leave entrails on commonly used hunter or game trails.
- Keep the meat clean by covering it with cheesecloth or rub with black pepper. This also repels flies which can lay their eggs in the meat.
- Moisture damages meat. Use minimal water to wash out the cavity and allow it to dry.
It is essential to rapidly chill the game meat. Bacterial growth and spoilage are reduced at temperatures below 40⁰F. Because their environment is less controlled than farm animals, wild animals are more likely to have parasites, microbial infections, viruses, and prions which can cause human illness.
Chronic wasting disease
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is caused by prions, abnormally-folded proteins which cluster in the brain and cause neurological damage to the host. Prions affect humans and animals and are always fatal since no cure, treatment or vaccine is available. Prions cause mad cow disease in cattle and a similar condition called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Symptoms of prion diseases in humans are rapid onset of dementia, confusion, difficulty walking, slurred speech, muscle spasms, and personality changes.
CWD had been found in deer, elk, reindeer, and moose in the U.S. and Canada. Symptoms in infected animals include severe weight loss or wasting, stumbling, confusion, listlessness, and other nervous system tics. There are no reported cases of CWD transmission from deer to humans, but some animal studies suggest that CWD poses a risk to primates who eat CWD-infected animals or who come in contact with brain or bodily fluids. One notable disease outbreak in the United States involved squirrel brains, a local delicacy in Kentucky. In 1997, doctors warned hunters and their families not to eat squirrel brains or spinal material because it might contain a variant prion. Final alert: Cooking meat does not kill prions!
Rabies, like CWD, affects the nervous system and is fatal if not treated immediately. It can spread to humans if they are bitten or scratched by an infected animal. Rabies can also be transmitted to hunters if they contact the infected bodily fluids of game while dressing the meat. Cooking meat will inactivate rabies as it is a virus, but eating this meat is not recommended.
Caused by Brucella abortus, brucellosis is a zoonotic disease which is passed from animal to human. This disease can produce recurrent fever, joint and back pain, influenza-like symptoms, and arthritis in humans. Brucellosis is an occupational hazard for veterinarians who regularly handle hoofed animals. The Centers for Disease Control has reported brucellosis in elk, bison, and free-range cattle in the greater Yellowstone area of Wyoming.
Trichinella is an infection caused by eating undercooked meat containing larvae of the parasitic worm Trichinella spiralis. The larvae are found in various game meats, including wild boar, bear, walrus, and other carnivorous game. In January 2020, dozens of hunters in Italy and their relatives and friends became ill with trichinella after they consumed wild boar meat. Other parasitic worms are often found in wild fish species. Don’t harvest meat from animals who have worms in their muscle meat or organs. Use a meat thermometer to ensure game meats reach a minimum temperature of 140⁰C when cooking. Sufficient heat also kills harmful bacteria and inactivates viruses.
Game Meat Handling DOs
To prevent zoonotic and parasitic infections, the New York State Department of Health provides some useful game meat handling tips for the hunter:
- Don’t handle deer or other game which appear sick or act weird. They may have rabies or chronic wasting disease (CWD). Don’t handle or consume animals that are already dead.
- Use dedicated utensils for game. Don’t use your family’s kitchen utensils. Wash with soap and water any utensils or services which come in contact with blood, urine, tissue or feces. Then rinse in boiling water or sanitizer.
- As an additional precaution against CWD, soak cleaned utensils and contact surfaces for one hour in a fresh solution of unscented bleach mixed with an equal amount of water. Let them air dry, then rinse them with clean water.
- Do not handle mouth parts, saliva, tissues or fluids bare-handed. If your hands do come in contact with these fluids or tissues wash your hands thoroughly and repeatedly. If these fluids or tissues contact your eyes, nose, mouth, open sores, or cuts on your person contact your local health department to see if this animal should be tested for rabies.
- Do not handle or cut through the skull or spinal column. If you are removing the skull cap and antlers from a deer, be sure to thoroughly clean the skull cap, utensils and contact surfaces with soap and bleach.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the diseases and parasites of wild game animals, just the most common or severe. The important take-away is that the safe and timely handling of game meat is vital for the protection of you and your loved ones. Enjoy the fruits of the hunt by savoring venison and other game meats free from zoonotic diseases.