Hunting Success? Cook Safely

November 30, 2015


You wear the right amount of orange. You carry your rifle a specific way with the safety on. You are alert and careful during hunting season. But, have you really thought about the equal importance of being safe in the way you handle the game after it has been killed?

Being careful in processing and preparation can keep you safe long after you bag your game.
“Those who field dress animals, fish and birds and transport them from the field are often unaware of the potential risks associated with food borne pathogen contamination,” said the Penn State Cooperative Extension.

“And it is so true,” said Lori Rancik, RN and case manager of The Women’s Health Center of Penn Highlands Healthcare who does outreach and education in the community. “Proper handling of game meat is important. Bacteria exist everywhere and can enter the meat both during the kill and during the dressing. Bacteria can grow on food when the temperature is right, and it can spread if you don’t follow simple food-safety rules. Therefore, there are significant risks and reasons to be conscientious.”

Bacteria grow faster in temperatures between 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit. It can double in number every 20 minutes. Temperatures below 40 degrees will slow the growth of bacteria, but it will not kill them. It is extremely important to age game carcasses or meat under refrigerated conditions at temperatures below 40 degree but above freezing.

Aging is the practice of holding carcasses or cuts under low, controlled temperatures and humidity for several days to enhance flavor, tenderness and complete curing reactions. Allowing the deer to hang at camp is part of this aging process. Just be sure it is handing at the correct temperature and in the right environment.
When meat ages, enzymes break down and complex proteins in the muscle degrade over time. This tenderization process stops once meat is frozen and does not resume when meat is thawed. This step is important.


“Meat from game animals is generally less tender than that of domestic animals because of the exercise wild animals exert,” Rancik said. The most tender meat if from young animals and also the condition of the animal before it is killed. Interestingly, if an animal is on the run prior to being killed, the meat may be darker and of lower overall quality.

If you age the meat at home, do so in a clean, cool, well-ventilated area free from gas, oil and paint odors as meat may absorb the odor.

You can leave the hide on it to protect against excessive dehydration, discoloration and contamination from dirt, leaves, insects, mold and bacteria, according to Bernie Clark, dietitian at Penn Highlands Clearfield. However, state law requires that the hide be removed before processing is done at a commercial processor. If you cover the carcass with cloth – use a game bag or clean material to avoid contaminating the meat.

When storing meat and working with it, prevent cross-contamination.

If you are cutting the meat up yourself, make sure you have a clean, roomy, well-ventilated area to work and a clean, sharp knife and saw. Have boiling water handy to dip the knife as you work to keep it clean. Clean all surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water and rinse well. “And always wash your hands before handling food,” Clark added.

Afterwards, to store your meat, cover it well. Be sure meat doesn’t drop onto other food items when stored. Store them in the bottom portion of the refrigerator, Clark said.

If you are cooking it, do not put cooked meat back on the same plate that held raw meat. Be sure to cook the meats thoroughly.

Always cook raw game meat to the proper internal temperatures. Roasting meat, use an oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees. Ground meats are cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees. Game birds should cook to 165 degrees internally.

“Be careful tnot to overcook, though,” JoAnn Schatz, director of Nutrition Services at Penn Highlands Elk, said. “Because there is less fat in wild animals, the moisture evaporates quickly in the pan, drying out the meat, turning it gray and giving it that ‘gamey’ flavor.”

If you freeze it, game stored at zero degrees will last up to a year or so. Freezing prevents bacterial growth but it does not kill them. Once thawed, the bacteria can become active again and multiply.

Other methods to preserve the meat include smoking, curing or canning. Be sure that you are following updated processing techniques that are proven safe.

Is it worth the effort? Game meat is a good thing. “Venison is a very lean meat, meaning there is little fat within the meat as compared to the fat content of beef,” Anna Hummel, clinical dietitian at Penn Highlands Brookville said.

“Because the fat content is less, it also means there are fewer calories. We recommend that people choose lean sources of protein, keeping in mind the proper portion size of 3 ounces, or a deck of cards. This lean meat can fit well into a heart-healthy diet.”

There are many good recipes available – these can be found in cookbooks, shared by other fellow gamers or online. From wild duck, pheasant and turkey to the larger roasts of bear, elk or deer, wild game can provide a delicious and hearty meal for the hunter and his or her family.

“Sometimes we do too much to a dish, when the ingredients should be allowed to speak for themselves,” Schatz said. “We may smother it in cream of mushroom soup or wrap it with jalapeños, cream cheese and bacon taking over the flavor. Game meat should be served with flavors that accentuate its flavor but not ones that cover it up. Often all we need is a simple sauce on the side. If it’s aged, brined and cooked properly there is no reason to crack open that can of mushroom soup. After all, you’ve worked too hard to bring it to the table, let your work shine.”

Note: Chronic wasting disease, CWD, is a disease that affects the brain and nervous system of infected deer, elk and moose, eventually resulting in death. There is no evidence that CWD is transmissible to humans or traditional livestock, according to the state Game Commission. “However, it is recommended that meat from CWD-positive animals not be consumed,” the Game Commission said.

Hunters should only harvest animals that appear healthy, and take common-sense precautions like wearing gloves while field dressing an animal and washing hands and equipment thoroughly when finished. Hunters in areas where CWD is known to exist should follow these guidelines to prevent the spread of the disease. Don’t consume the high risk parts which include the brain, lymph nodes and spinal cord.