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How to Field Dress Wild Game Properly and Safely

Fishing and hunting are popular outdoor activities. Many outdoor enthusiasts engage in angling or hunting so they can have trophies to put up on their walls. Others rely on hunting and fishing for supplemental food sources. Game animals will have to be cleaned and processed properly whether they’re headed to the dinner table or to the taxidermist.

Pathogen contamination is one of the biggest risks when field dressing an animal. As with any animal, game can contain harmful bacteria, such as salmonella and strains of E. coli. Other animals, such as wild hogs, can infect people with a flu-like illness called brucellosis, which can be caught through contact with blood, fluid or tissue of an infected hog. Deer, elk and moose also may have chronic wasting disease, or CWD. Although there is no evidence that links CWD to human illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises caution.

Proper field dressing techniques and game transport can help reduce the risk of pathogenic contamination. Here are some tips for getting started, courtesy of Penn State and the CDC.

• Wear safety gear. When handling any game animals, protect yourself with rubber gloves. This will prevent the blood and fluids from the game animal from getting on your skin. Eye protection is also advised when handling carcasses.

• Work quickly. The elapsed time from when the animal is downed until it is processed can affect the safety and the quality of the meat if it will be consumed, according to Martin Bucknavage, food safety extension associate in the Penn State Department of Food Science. Field dress as soon as possible to ensure rapid loss of the animal’s body heat, to prevent surface bacteria from growing and to preserve the quality of the meat. Eviscerate the animal to help the carcass dissipate heat and remove the internal organs, where spoilage tends to occur more quickly.

• Watch out for internal organs. Avoid cutting into internal organs, especially the intestines, where the largest amount of bad bacteria tend to reside.

• Chill the carcass. Deterioration will occur more quickly in temperatures greater than 40 F. Therefore, insert plastic bags of ice or snow into the body cavity of the animal to keep the carcass chilled. Move the carcass into a cooler or refrigerator as soon as possible after field dress.

• Choose tools wisely. Use clean, sharp knives when field dressing and butchering to make it easier to cut through and process the carcass. Use clean water, premoistened wipes or alcohol wipes to clean the knife frequently between cuts to prevent bacterial contamination.

• Hang game by hind legs. Hang the animal by its hind legs with its head down when aging or butchering. This prevents brain and spinal fluids from contacting the meat.

Most importantly during field dress, if any of the internal organs smell or look offensive, or if there is oddly colored discharge, do not consume the meat. Hunters and anglers are advised to learn more about field dress techniques to hone their skills. Speak with local fish and game officials about nearby courses.

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