Safe Handling Practices for Wild Game Meat

As we head into the gun-deer season,  it is a good time to remember safe handling practices for wild game meat. Families across Wisconsin depend on  game meat to supplement their food budget, and safe animal and food-handling practices can help ensure that harvested meat is safe and high quality.

Venison is a nutritious game meat that can be served in a variety of ways. It can be prepared as roasts or steaks, or ground and prepared as burgers or used as a substitute for ground beef in familiar dishes. Ground venison  is also used as an ingredient in sausages.

Start the hunt preparing for a safe, high quality harvest by remembering a few key points for handling a downed deer: 1) keep it clean; 2) keep it dry; and 3) keep it cold. You do not need to further ‘bleed’ a harvested deer. As you prepare the carcass, remember that leaving the hide on the deer keeps the meat surface clean and prevents the outside of the carcass from drying out.

Do remove the viscera from the body cavity as soon as possible, especially if the deer was hit in the gut area. This will help cool the carcass more quickly and limit bacterial spreading and growth. Work efficiently to gut the deer, while taking the time needed to do a careful job. Be careful not to cut into the intestines, stomach or bladder – these commonly contain high levels of bacteria that can contaminate the muscle tissue. Do cut around the entrance and exit holes to remove any dirty or potentially contaminated material.  If available, use a clean cloth or towel to help control spill of blood or organ contents onto the carcass.

Once internal organs are removed, rinse the cavity with clean, cold water if at all possible. Rinsing the cavity can help remove contaminants and protect the quality of the meat. For extra protection, use a 50/50 solution of water and vinegar to rinse the cavity. Rinsing the carcass with cold water will also help cool the carcass.

The cooling process should begin within a couple hours of harvesting the deer. Propping open the body cavity, keeping the carcass in the shade, and exposing it to air movement are all ways to improve cooling. By suspending the deer from an overhead object, you can greatly speed up the cooling process since the air reaching the carcass will carry away any heat and provide a cooling effect. While cooling is important, protect the carcass from freezing; if the carcass freezes within the first six hours after harvest, the meat can become tough.

Many hunters age deer carcasses before cutting into chops or roasts. Aging refers to holding carcasses at 35 to 45°F to allow natural enzymes to tenderize the meat. It can take from 7 to 10 days of aging to result in a noticeable eating difference in your venison steaks. If you choose to age your venison, you must weigh the benefits of aging against the drying out of exposed surfaces (dehydration) and possible bacterial spoilage. Temperature is important, tenderizing will not occur if the carcass is frozen, and if the temperature is too warm bacteria can grow quickly and spoil the meat.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Health Services have issued health advisories related to lead in venison. Lead bullet fragments in venison present a health hazard to children under the age of 6 and pregnant women. To help protect against lead contamination:

  • Consider alternative expanding, non-lead ammunition such as cooper or other high-weight retention lead bullets, such as bonded bullets.
  • Practice good hunting skills, aiming for the vitals behind the shoulder, or the neck or the head. Do not shoot a running deer.
  • Avoid consuming internal organs such as the heart which may contain extra lead from heart-lung shots.
  • Take care to avoid processing any meat with excessive shot damage. Trim a generous distance away from the wound channel and discard any meat that is bruised, discolored or contains hair, dirt, bone fragments or grass.

Several University of Wisconsin, Division of Extension publications can help ensure a safe and successful deer harvest:  So You Got a Deer (G1598)  and Canning Meat, Wild Game, Poultry and Fish Safely (B3345).

Hunters should consult the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for information on chronic wasting disease and hunter safety regulations.