CWD or not, same safety advice for field dressing, processing deer

November 16, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- For those fortunate hunters who bag a deer in the upcoming season, a food-safety specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences offers some advice for field dressing and storing the carcass properly and processing the meat.

Although hunters may be concerned by recent reports that chronic wasting disease was found this fall in two captive deer in the southeastern part of the state, recommendations about deer handling are largely unchanged, according to Martin Bucknavage, food safety extension associate in the Department of Food Science.

Widely known as CWD, the disease is fatal for deer, elk and moose. Highly transmissible among those animals, it has been known to be present in the wild deer populations of the West for four decades, and more recently has spread east to states such as Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. It has not yet been found in wild deer in the commonwealth.

"There is no evidence that supports CWD being linked to human illness," Bucknavage said. "But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does recommend against eating meat from deer infected with the disease.

"It is still best to take precautions," he noted. "Make sure the deer you killed appears to have been healthy, and follow the general guidelines for handling and processing deer, such as wearing rubber gloves and minimizing contact with brain and spinal-cord material."

As always, hunters should be concerned primarily with the safety of the meat, Bucknavage stressed. He explained that the elapsed time from when the deer is downed until it is processed can have the largest impact on the safety and quality of the meat.

Bucknavage urged hunters to follow these guidelines:

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

2. Wear a pair of rubber gloves when field dressing the deer. Deer carry pathogenic bacteria, and so precautions are needed to prevent cross contamination. If you get blood on your hands or clothes, be sure to wash thoroughly in soap and water.

3. 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. This can be done with a string or rubber band.

4. Don't cut into the brain, spinal cord, spinal column or lymph nodes when butchering.

5. If the outside temperature is greater than 40 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.

6. 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."

7. Do not age the deer if the temperature is greater than 40 F. While experts don't agree on the need for aging, hanging a deer at temperatures greater than 40 F may lead to unwanted spoilage. The greater the temperature above 40 F, the quicker spoilage will occur.

8. 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 towels. If you rinse the cavity, be sure to dry thoroughly. Excess moisture will encourage bacterial growth.

9. Clean residues from knives and equipment, and then sanitize with a chlorine bleach solution. It is wise to carry sanitary wipes with you to clean knives in the field.

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

Processing your meat

After field dressing and transporting the carcass, hunters must decide what to do with the meat. "While some leave the choices to their local butcher, many are finding that they can save money and increase their personal enjoyment by butchering their own deer," Bucknavage said.

"It certainly is easier to turn your trophy deer into a pile of ground meat, but if the hunter is willing to learn proper butchering and cooking techniques, the possibilities for preparing your venison are endless."

Bucknavage urged hunters to keep a few general rules in mind when planning how to butcher their game.

Use a knife and debone all venison. "Cutting bone could expose meat to nerve tissue," he said.

"When it comes to cooking whole cuts of meat, it is important to remember that as we move away from the hooves and horns, the cuts of meat become more tender," he said.

"These tender cuts, such as the tenderloin, should be cooked quickly at a higher temperature. For tougher cuts, use low, moist heat to cook the meat more slowly. This helps break down the connective tissue within those cuts."

Because of the possibility of E. coli O157:H7 contamination of the meat, it is important that the venison cuts reach a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit or higher -- which is a major issue, Bucknavage said, when making the always-popular venison jerky.

"One of the biggest concerns when making jerky is that people don't heat the meat to the proper temperature," he said. "It is important that jerky be heated just until it reaches at least 160 to 165 degrees. This can be accomplished by dipping the slices into a hot marinade for a minute or so before beginning the drying process."

Canning is another option for venison."Preserving venison through canning is a little-used practice that can turn tougher venison cuts into a ready-to-go ingredient for a favorite stew recipe," he said. "It is important to follow standard USDA guidelines to preserve your venison safely."

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

The "Field Dressing Deer Pocket Guide"  -- a free, 12-panel publication -- 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.

"Proper Field Dressing and Handling of Wild Game and Fish"  is for hunters and anglers who handle animals, fish and birds in the field. It details the potential risks involved in contaminating the meat or fish while dressing, handling and transporting it. This free, 12-page, illustrated publication describes the importance of temperature control and gives detailed instructions for safe field dressing and transporting of deer, small animals and game birds.

A companion booklet, "Proper Processing of Wild Game and Fish," is a free, 20-page publication that describes safe processing techniques for wild game and fish. Aging, cutting, curing, smoking and canning -- as well as jerky and sausage making -- are detailed. The importance of temperature control is discussed, and various types of meat thermometers are identified. A final section includes recipes for game birds, fish and venison.

  • The elapsed time from when the deer is downed until it is processed can have the largest impact on the safety and quality of the meat..

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 19, 2012