Deer hunters, be sure downed animal was healthy before eating venison

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Food-safety specialists with Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences annually issue warnings to deer hunters to keep food safety in mind if they are fortunate enough to get a buck or a doe, and this fall is no exception.

However, this year because of the discovery of chronic wasting disease in wild Pennsylvania deer, they are cautioning hunters to be sure their animal appears healthy.

Chronic wasting disease -- often called CWD -- is a chronic, degenerative neurological disease affecting the central nervous system of animals such as deer and elk. The disease has been moving east in recent decades.

"In the past year, three free-ranging deer harvested by hunters in Blair and Bedford counties were found to have the disease," said Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate in the college's Department of Food Science. "While there is no evidence that supports CWD being linked to human illness, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does recommend against eating meat from deer infected with the disease."

Bucknavage noted that it is best to take precautions, such as making sure the deer you killed appears to have been healthy, and to follow best practices for handling and processing deer, such as wearing rubber gloves and minimizing contact with brain and spinal cord material.

"While the risk of CWD is very low, hunters need to focus on the overall safety of the meat. This starts from the time the deer is downed until it is processed and cooked for eating," he said.

"Each year we hear stories of people who get sick a day or two after getting a deer, most often from cross contamination, the result of not handling the raw meat properly."

Bucknavage urges hunters to do the following:

-- Carry a pair of rubber gloves with you when hunting and then be sure to wear them when field dressing the deer.

Deer carry pathogenic bacteria, and so precautions are needed to prevent cross contamination, he pointed out. "Whether you get blood on your hands or clothes or not, be sure to wash thoroughly in soap and water after handling the carcass or the meat."

-- Eviscerate the animal as soon as possible. This helps the carcass dissipate heat and removes internal organs where spoilage can occur more quickly.

Be sure to avoid cutting into the internal organs, especially the intestines. There are large numbers of bacteria -- including pathogenic bacteria -- in the intestines. "Tie off the anus," he said. "This can be done with a string or rubber band."

-- Evaluate the internal organs of the deer during field dressing. If any of the internal organs smell unusually offensive, or if there is a greenish discharge, black blood or blood clots in the muscle, do not consume the meat.

"If you kill a deer and question the safety and quality of the meat, immediately contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission," Bucknavage said. "The agency has policies for authorizing an additional kill."

-- The brain, spinal cord, spinal column and lymph nodes of deer are considered high risk for CWD, so avoid cutting into those tissue when butchering. If possible, hang deer by hind legs with head down when aging or butchering.

"Most cattle and livestock processed in this country are hung with the head down," Bucknavage said. "That prevents brain and spinal fluids from contacting the meat."

-- Remove all visible hair, dirt, feces and bloodshot areas from the internal cavity. Wipe the inside of the body cavity with a dry cloth or paper towel. If you rinse the cavity, be sure to dry thoroughly. Excess moisture will encourage bacterial growth.
 
-- Be sure to clean residues from knives and equipment, then sanitize with a chlorine bleach solution. It is wise to carry sanitary wipes with you to clean knives in the field.

If the outside temperature is greater than 40 Fahrenheit (F), you can help to chill the carcass by inserting plastic bags of ice or snow into the body cavity. Once out of the field, get the carcass into a cooler or refrigerator as soon as you can. If the temperature is below 40 F, prop open the cavity with sticks to promote cooling.

Don't tie the deer to the hood of your car. This will serve only to heat the carcass.

Because of the possibility of pathogens on the meat, such as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella, it is important to properly cook the meat to a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees F or higher before eating.

The USDA guidelines are available online through Penn State's Food Safety website. The Department of Food Science offers hunters a wealth of information on the preparation of wild game from the field to the table.

The Field Dressing Deer Pocket Guide explains how to field-dress a deer safely. Extensively illustrated in full color, it explains the process of field dressing and also covers important food-safety information for hunters. See it online.

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Last Updated December 02, 2013