Harvesting your own game meat can be a satisfying way to provide your family with all-natural, wholesome, and flavorful food. However, unlike domestically-raised poultry and livestock, wild game animals receive no veterinary care and their meat is not inspected before and after harvest. In addition, butchering and processing often take place under less than ideal conditions.
Hunters are responsible for educating themselves on the proper care and handling of game meat in order to protect themselves and their families from food-borne illnesses. Much of the following information is from Pacific Northwest Extension Publication 517, “Big Game from Hunt to Home” and the Clemson Cooperative Extension Publication HGIC 3516, “Safe Handling of Wild Game Meats.”
Before the hunt
Ensure that you have the following:
- Rubber or disposable gloves
- Sharp hunting knife
- Game saw
- Bags for the heart and liver, if desired
- Game bags
- Clean rags, paper towels, or wipes
- Tarps or canvas
- Cheesecloth (optional)
- Black pepper (optional)
During the hunt
Strive for a clean shot; avoid gut shots, which can result in contamination of the meat with intestinal contents.
If you harvest a game animal bearing a round yellow tag, it means that at some point in its life the animal was treated with a drug. Drug residues may remain in the animal’s system for several weeks after it was treated, depending on the particular drug and the species of animal. These drug residues may be harmful to humans if they are still present when the meat of the animal is consumed. The time from when the animal received the drug until the drug residues are no longer in the animal’s system is called the “withdrawal period”.
- Wear rubber or disposable gloves while field dressing, skinning, and butchering
- Bleed the carcass and remove the internal organs as quickly as possible. The longer the intestines and other organs are left inside the carcass, the greater the chances that the meat will spoil.
- While gutting, take special care to not puncture the stomach or intestines to avoid contamination of the meat with intestinal bacteria. If intestinal contents come into contact with the meat, immediately remove them with clean towels.
- Cut around cysts, fibromas or other growths, which are common but don’t usually affect game meat quality
- Clean your hunting knife and other utensils often with clean water and soap.
- Use clean towels and clean water to wipe out excess blood from the gutted cavity, then dry as completely as possible with clean towels.
- Remember hunting regulations often require that proof of sex (antlers, external genitalia, udder, etc.) remain attached to the carcass.
Cooling wild game to less than 40 degrees F as quickly as possible will slow the growth of bacteria and keep the meat from spoiling. Ideally, this is accomplished by taking the carcass to a cooler on the day of the kill. If this is not possible, the following should be considered:
- If ambient temperatures are above freezing, it is important to remove the skin from larger animals such as elk and moose to facilitate cooling. Because of their heavy coats and abundant fat, it is especially important to remove the skin from bears as soon as possible. On warm days, it may be necessary to pack the body cavity with bags of ice.
- Good air circulation is important during the cooling process. If the carcass cannot be hung, place it on logs or rocks and prop the cavity open with sharpened sticks. Keep the carcass out of direct sunlight.
- In warm weather, cheesecloth or a lightweight game meat bag may be placed over a skinned carcass as it cools to protect it from flies. Black pepper or food-grade citric acid applied to the carcass may also discourage flies.
- Carcasses should not be placed in plastic bags or tarps before being thoroughly chilled, as plastic will hold heat in and increase the chances of the meat spoiling.
- Make sure the carcass is clean and dry before transport
- Keep the carcass cool during transport. Keep the carcass out of direct sunlight and allow for adequate air circulation.
- With deer and smaller animals, keep the meat clean during transport by leaving the skin on, or by wrapping in meat bags. Make sure the meat is thoroughly chilled before wrapping in tarps or plastic.
Aging meat is the practice of holding carcasses or cuts of meat at temperatures of 34 to 37 degrees F for 7 to 14 days to allow the enzymes in the meat to break down some of the complex proteins in the carcass. Aged meat is often more tender and flavorful. If not done correctly, however, aging will result in spoiled meat that could sicken your family.
- Aging should be done at temperatures between 34-37 degrees F, and for no longer than two weeks.
- Aging is generally not beneficial for animals less than a year of age, as the meat is already tender and – due to the low fat content – may become excessively dry when aged.
- Aging should not be done under the following circumstances, as the meat is more likely to spoil than age:
- The animal was shot during warm weather and not chilled rapidly.
- The animal was stressed by running excessively before it died.
- The animal was wounded and trailed for several hours before it died.
- There is excessive tissue damage from the gunshot wound.
- The carcass was heavily contaminated with dirt, hair, excessive blood, etc.
- If, during the aging process, the meat begins to develop slime, mold, or “off” odors, aging should be stopped, the spoiled portions trimmed, and the remainder of the carcass frozen immediately.
Care in the kitchen
- Frozen meat can be safely thawed in the refrigerator or microwave oven. Meat thawed in a microwave must be cooked immediately. If thawed in the refrigerator, the meat should be cooked within two days.
- Most game meat will keep safely for up to five days in the refrigerator. Fowl and ground meat will keep only for two days in the refrigerator.
- Do not eat any portions of wild game raw.
- Keep raw meat separated from cooked meat and other foods.
- Do not feed raw portions of wild game to domestic pets.
- Cook wild game meat until the juices run clear. Follow recommended food safety guidelines for cooking temperatures:
- All game meat should be cooked to a minimum of 165° F. (WDFW recommends bear meat be cooked at 170° F)
- CAUTION: Freezing, microwaving or smoking MAY NOT KILL all the bacteria, viruses or parasites that could be present in meat.
Wash your hands with warm water and soap. Wash the knife, cutting board, and other dishes that came into contact with the raw meat in warm, soapy water, and disinfect with a dilute bleach/water solution as follows:
- 1 tablespoon bleach per gallon of water for stainless steel, food/mouth contact items, and toys.
- 1/3 cup of bleach per gallon of water for non-porous surfaces such as tile floors, counter-tops, sinks, and toilets.
- 1½ cups of bleach per gallon of water for porous surfaces such as wooden floors.