When we’re hunting, the last thing on our mind is food safety, but it should be the first. Well, after we take the shot and bring down that buck. However, the processing game is crucial in ensuring that our meat is safe.
Throughout the entire process, we’re striving to do one thing — prevent bacteria from reaching the meat. To do this, there are three things we should always be doing.
- Prevent bacteria in the first place: keeping your tools and work areas clean.
- Prevent the bacteria that is on the food from growing: cooling below 40°F stops the spread of bacteria.
- Kill the bacteria that you might’ve let slip by: cooking your venison above 165°F kills harmful bacteria.
The entire process is all about not consuming harmful bacteria. But let’s go through each step in a little more detail.
Proper field dressing.
You just nailed that 150 lb whitetail with a single shot. That will put food on your table for months. Now, the first step to ensure food safety when processing game is proper field dressing.
For those new to the sport, field dressing refers to removing the entrails and organs of the animal as soon as possible after it’s killed. This reduces the risk of bacterial growth and makes it much easier to transport the animal.
You should wear gloves while field dressing to avoid coming into contact with bodily fluids and use a clean, sharp knife to prevent damaging the internal organs. I see a lot of hunters using their old rusty knife they’ve had in their bag from the previous hunting season, and it doesn’t look like they’ve even cleaned it since.
One slip of the knife on the bladder or intestine, and you’ll have a significant mess on your hands, and the meat will be contaminated.
During this step, some bacteria will get into the venison; it’s inevitable. You’re in a field environment. However, we’re trying to minimize the introduction of bacteria as much as possible by keeping them clean.
After field dressing, it’s crucial to start the cooling process as soon as possible to prevent the growth and spread of harmful bacteria. Get the meat in a cooler as soon as possible.
This isn’t so much a problem in the northern states where deer season just happens to be in the coldest months of the year, but in states such as Texas, where it’s still 70 degrees outside, quick cooling is essential.
If possible, hang the animal in a cool, dry place with good air circulation to allow the meat to cool down quickly while draining the blood. Ideally, you want the temperature between 32°F and 36°F during this time and never a degree above 40°F.
This will also help prevent spoilage and improve the overall flavor of the meat. There’s a lot of preference here, but some hunters like to hang their kill for weeks while others just a few days.
Personally, I like to hang it in a cold locker for at least a week at 36°F. If you can’t store it, make sure you have coolers and plenty of ice ready for when you bring the animal back. You can also rent cold lockers from some local butcher shops if needed.
Clean work area.
When it’s time to process the meat, ensure you’re working in a clean area and using sterile tools.
Before you start, wash your hands and disinfect your processing surfaces and utensils.
If you have a few game animals you’re processing, use separate cutting boards for each type of meat to prevent cross-contamination, and always wash your hands and tools between cuts.
Yes, this slows the process down, but it’s worth it.
You should also disinfect your knife between deer or other types of game.
Keeping the work area clean will prevent the meat from becoming contaminated with bacteria.
Proper handling, storage, and cooking.
Once you’ve processed the meat, keeping proper handling and storage in mind is essential. Always refrigerate the meat at 40°F or below until you’re ready to cook it.
If you’re going to freeze the meat, which most hunters do, use vacuum-sealed bags to prevent freezer burn.
Label and date the packages to know how long they’ve been in the freezer. For the most part, you can freeze the venison for 6-12 months without sacrificing too much quality.
When it’s time to cook the meat, make sure you cook it to the proper temperature to kill any bacteria. Like beef, venison must be at least 165°F to kill harmful bacteria.
Seek Help When Needed
Even the most experienced hunters may need help when it comes to processing and storing game meat.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help from more experienced hunters or reach out to local meat processors for guidance. Most game processors I’ve met will gladly share advice and give you tips for how they process venison and other game.
Joining a local club or association of hunters can also help to network with like-minded people who may provide useful tips and tricks. There are even some Facebook groups where hunters share their experiences and knowledge.
Enjoy your hard-earned meal.
Hunting for food can be an exciting and rewarding experience, but it’s essential to keep food safety in mind when processing game meat.
Just like any other food, improper handling and storage can lead to the growth of harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness.
By following these tips, you can ensure that your hard-earned meal is safe and delicious for you and your family to enjoy.