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Field Dressing Safety Precautions

Clean, Dry & Chill

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Field Dressing Safety Precautions
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With the approach of deer-hunting season every year, it's a good idea to become familiar or get reacquainted with the health-safety precautions that every hunter should take when killing and field-dressing deer. The rule of thumb for handling venison safely is Clean, Dry and Chill.

Chronic Wasting Disease

The steadily increasing numbers of deer infected with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) requires hunters to take necessary precautions when field dressing a freshly killed deer. Similar to so-called "mad cow disease", CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy in adult deers, which causes a progressive weight loss that is always fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CWD has been diagnosed among free-ranging deer and elk in Colorado, Wyoming, and states east of the Mississippi. Although to date there is no documented evidence of humans becoming infected with CWD, the improper handling of even healthy deer can increase the risk of salmonella gastroenteritis.

Two primary precautions should be taken when hunting deer.

  1. Recognize the symptoms of CWD: severe weight loss, excessive drinking and urination, excessive drooling and teeth-grinding, listlessness (in white-tail deer) or hyper-excitability (in elk); and

  2. Do not eat the eyes, brain, spinal cord, spleen, tonsils or lymph nodes of any deer.

Steps for Safe Field Dressing

  1. Wear disposable rubber gloves to reduce the risk of exposure to disease. Wash any blood thoroughly off skin or clothes with soap and water.

  2. Use clean water, disposable wipes or alcohol swabs to lean the knife frequently or between cuts of the deer to avoid spreading bacteria through the meat.

  3. The deer should be eviscerated as soon as possible after the kill. Prompt evisceration helps the carcass to dissipate heat as well as decrease the spread of bacteria, especially in the internal organs.

  4. Remove all visible hair, dirt, feces and blood, and wipe the carcass clean. Rinse a and dry thoroughly with clean cloth or paper towels.

  5. Avoid cutting into or puncturing the intestines, stomach or bladder while removing. If the deer was gut-shot, or its internal organs compromised, once removed, thoroughly rinse the carcass with cold water.

  6. If the organs emit an offensive odor or ooze green discharge or black blood, do not eat the deer's meat, and dispose of the carcass immediately and responsibly.

  7. To prevent bacterial growth, it is critical to cool the carcass down to 35°F-40°F by packing bags of ice or snow sealed in plastic storage bags — not plastic garbage bags — into the cavity and securing them in place by tying the cavity shut.

  8. Do not skin the carcass before transporting. The hide protects the meat from contamination and prevents it from drying out.

Transporting and Processing

Although it is recommended that the processing of a carcass should be done at a professional facility with the necessary refrigeration, many hunters choose to butcher the deer themselves. First and foremost, in transporting the carcass, it should be kept cool and out of sunlight and have adequate air circulation. A deer carcass should never be tied to the hood or roof of a car. Transport the carcass to the processing facility as soon as possible. If the hunter is processing the deer him/herself, the carcass must be kept at 40°F or less.

For home-processing, some health-safety rules to remember are:

  1. Do not use the same knife used for field dressing to butcher the meat.

  2. During processing, regularly clean the knife between cuts to prevent contamination of the meat. Wash hands and cutting board with soap and hot water often during processing. When through cutting and packaging the meat, clean all knives, equipment and cutting surfaces with soap and hot water, and disinfect with a 50-50 solution of water and bleach.

  3. Maintain the temperature of the meat at 40°F or less. Refrigerate any portions not cut. If aging, do so at 40°F or less, up to three days at most.

  4. Keep raw meat wrapped and separated on trays from other food in the refrigerator.

  5. When freezing, tightly wrap the apportioned meat in freezer storage wrap and/or freezer storage bags, squeezing out any air before sealing. Label all packages with the cut of meat and date frozen. Properly stored game meat can be frozen for 9 to 12 months.

  6. Thaw all frozen game meats in their wrapping in the refrigerator, and use immediately.

A Note About Cooking Venison

Wild deer are leaner than farmed deer, so truly wild venison cooks faster than farmed venison and can easily be over-cooked, so if you're using a restaurant's recipe, remember that a reputable restaurant can only cook and serve inspected farmed venison, so adjust the timing of the recipe for wild venison accordingly. Also the age of the deer affects how its meat will cook. Young deer can be grilled, sautéed or roasted, while older game will be tougher and should be braised or stewed.

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