Hunting season safety practices aren’t all about guns and arrows

With deer hunting season upon us there is an increase in the potential for foodborne illnesses. Field dressing, butchering, and handling of game meat all offer opportunity for pathogens wreak havoc.

Even if proper technique is used in the field, vehicles and household surfaces can easily become cross contaminated from microscopic amounts of pathogens found in wild game.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has compiled a list of best practices for the proper field-dressing and handling procedures to ensure safe and high-quality meat. (Immediately below) and the American Veterinary Medical Association has put together a list of what it calls common sense guidelines (at bottom).

Best practices:

Plan ahead – If a hunter is planning to take a deer or other game to a locker or other facility for processing, it is recommended they call or talk to the processor beforehand to ask how they prefer to receive the meat.  Many processors prefer to receive the whole, hide-on, field-dressed carcass as the hide protects the meat during transport.  Hunters should take their deer to the locker as soon as reasonably possible for best safety and quality.

Act quickly – It is important to field-dress game promptly after harvest, ideally within a half-hour. A game animal’s body begins to decompose within one to two hours of death, especially if temperatures are unseasonably warm (above 40 degrees).

Proper equipment – Wear disposable gloves and use clean knives and utensils, both to keep the meat clean and to protect you from the animal’s blood. (There are several illnesses which hunters can acquire from the blood of an infected game animal).

Proper containers – If you will be boning out the carcass yourself, be sure to use food-safe containers to store or transport the meat.  Clear plastic, “zipper-lock” style bags (found in the food-storage section of most grocery stores) are food-safe, available in large sizes, and will not leech chemicals or cause off-odors or flavors. Do NOT use plastic garbage bags or other containers not designed and approved for food-storage to store your meat.  Plastic garbage bags are NOT food-safe and may have been treated with scents, deodorants, or other compounds meant to reduce odors and discourage pests.  These compounds can leech into your meat and cause off odors, off flavors, or safety issues.  Processors are well within their rights to refuse game meat delivered in unsafe containers.

Disposal – Iowa law allows lawfully taken game carcasses and waste from home meat processing to be disposed with other residential waste, although your solid waste hauler may have some restrictions regarding the maximum size or weight of an individual bag. The waste should be sealed in plastic bags in lots that are similar in size and weight to a typical bag of residential waste.

No Dumping – Dumping a game carcass in a road ditch or on other public property creates a nuisance and is subject to enforcement under Iowa’s littering laws.

More information and a guide to proper field-dressing can be found at

Protecting Hunters from Risk: Some Common Sense Guidelines
Avoid hunting if you are feeling ill. People are more prone to disease if their immune systems are weakened by other illnesses or conditions. Take precautions to minimize insect bites. Do not handle or eat wild game or fowl that appeared ill or were acting in an abnormal manner before they were killed. Do not eat, drink or smoke while cleaning wild fowl or game. Always protect your hands with gloves (heavy rubber, latex, or nitrile) when field dressing wild game or fowl. Do not use the same utensils to clean different species. If there are any old wounds on the carcass, and especially if there is pus present, meat in this area should be removed and discarded. A large area of tissue around the wound and pus pockets should also be cut away with the wound, even if the tissue looks normal, because it can still harbor infection. If any abnormalities are seen in the chest or abdominal cavity of the carcass, consider disposing of the entire carcass. Minimize contact with brain or spinal tissues. When boning out the carcass, keep both the head and spine intact. Do not cut into the head of any antlered animal that showed abnormal behavior, even to remove the rack. When removing antlers from a healthy animal, use a hand saw rather than a power saw, and always wear safety glasses. Avoid abdominal shots because they lead to contamination of the meat and can cause the animal needless suffering. If any intestinal contents of the game come into contact with meat, the meat should be considered contaminated and should be cut off and discarded. Do not feed the contaminated meat to other animals, or they may become infected. Large game should be shot with a clean, humane kill shot, preferably avoiding the abdomen, followed quickly by removal of the intestines; this minimizes the risk of intestinal contents contaminating the meat. If any of the intestines have an abnormal smell or discharge, or if pockets of blood are seen in the muscle unassociated with the bullet/shot/arrow wound, the flesh should be considered unfit for eating. The abdominal cavity should be cleaned, dried and cooled until the meat is processed. During warm weather (over 65° F, or 18.3 C), bags of ice should be placed in the body cavity to hasten cooling. The carcass should be protected against flies. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer immediately after handling wild game or fowl, including the tissues and meat. Wash tools, equipment and working surfaces (including tables and cutting boards) thoroughly with soap and water, followed by disinfection immediately after handling any wild game or fowl. Adding a minimum of 1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water is usually adequate for use as a cleaning/disinfecting solution. If you prepare your own ground meat, thoroughly clean and disinfect all equipment after use. Avoid eating raw or undercooked meat. Always cook wild meat until the juices run clear and the meat is no longer pink in color (generally 150-180°F [65.6 – 82.2 C], depending on the type of meat). This will reduce the risk of food-borne disease. Because the color of the meat is not always a reliable indicator of proper cooking, use of a meat thermometer is highly recommended for safety. Extra attention to the internal temperature should be used when cooking with a microwave oven. Cook wild birds thoroughly – any cooked bird should reach an internal temperature of 165°F (73.9 C) or higher to make sure that organisms and parasites are killed and are no longer infective. Any uncooked game should be promptly frozen, refrigerated or disposed of properly. Keep uncooked wild game separate from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid contamination. Meat should be properly wrapped and stored on bottom shelves of the refrigerator or freezer to avoid blood dripping on (and potentially contaminating) other foods. Meat should be refrigerated or frozen properly and should not be kept at room temperature. Freezing meat does not necessarily protect against disease. In the United States, hunters should report any signs of sick wildlife or wild bird die-off to the state’s game and fish agency or wildlife agency. Make sure hunting dogs are up-to-date on their vaccines, especially rabies, prior to hunting season. Consult your veterinarian about proper preventive treatments for your hunting dogs, such as heartworm prevention, and use the products as recommended. Consult your veterinarian about regular stool exams of hunting dogs to check them for parasites, including those that can be passed to people.
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