Field Dressing, Transporting and Processing Game
Like all meat, wild game needs to be handled properly.
Unlike domestic animals that go through licenced processing plants, meat from wild game is not government inspected.
This places a special duty on the hunter to field dress, transport and process wild game in a manner that ensures the final meat product is as safe as possible for human consumption.
Field dressing, or gutting, is the process of removing the entrails (internal organs) from the animal to promote cooling of the carcass and prevent the meat from spoiling.
Big game like white-tailed deer, moose and bear should be field dressed immediately after the kill to protect the quality of the meat.
If the animal is lying in water, mud or other debris, move it to a better location where you can keep it as clean as possible while field dressing. Roll the animal on its back or side. If possible, position it with the head higher than the rump.
Cut a line up from the crotch to the tip of the sternum (where the rib cage ends and the belly starts). The weight of the stomach, or rumen, and intestines will pull down away from the incision, lessening the chance of puncturing these organs. It is best to cut with the blade up and out of the cavity, which helps to prevent cutting into the rumen or intestines and also prevents dragging hair into the stomach cavity. After freeing the colon from the body by cutting around the anus, tie a string around the colon just in front of the anus, to prevent feces from falling out into the body cavity.
Cut around the diaphragm, carefully cut the windpipe free at the throat and free any internal organs by cutting through the tissue attaching them to the backbone area of the animal. Pull the windpipe and entrails out onto the ground. Care must be taken not to tear or puncture intestines, stomach or bladder. However, if rumen, intestinal or bladder contents have spilled onto the carcass, wipe it with clean paper towels. Once all the entrails are removed, turn the carcass on its side or belly and allow all the blood to drain out.
Do not wash out the body cavity with natural water sources in the bush. These are prime sources of contamination. Instead, use paper towels to wipe out the carcass. Keep the exposed surfaces of the meat as dry as possible.
The body cavity should be propped open to allow air to circulate freely.
In warmer weather, it is best to get the skin off the animal as soon as possible. Lightweight cheesecloth bags or specially designed meat bags will help keep debris and litter from getting on the meat and will not interfere with cooling. In cold weather, the skin can be left on the carcass until you get to camp or home. If you are leaving the carcass or quarters in the bush for transport at a later time, use your rope and a handy tree branch to pull it/them up off the ground. This allows air to circulate and cool the meat.
You will likely be transporting your animal from the bush by dragging it, or with an ATV or other vehicle. If you are dragging, pull the animal by its head and avoid dragging it through water or mud. Avoid getting leaves and other debris inside the body cavity.
You may have to quarter larger animals like moose for transport from the bush. When quartering the animal make sure the knife, axe and/or saw you use is clean and keep the meat free of dirt.
When transporting game by vehicle, be sure to keep the carcass away from engine heat, gasoline, sunlight, and road dust to prevent spoilage. Position the carcass to allow air circulation on all sides. Use cheesecloth or other clean wrapping to protect the meat. Never use plastic wrap, bags or tarps to wrap freshly killed game carcasses or meat in the field, as plastic holds heat and moisture, and can cause the meat to spoil.
Hanging and Cooling
Ideally, game carcasses should be cooled as soon as possible to a temperature not exceeding 7o Celsius (45oF). Hang the meat in a place that is cool and dry. If the animal is hung in a shed or garage, make sure potential contaminants (e.g. stored gasoline) are first removed. Always make sure there is good air circulation.
Inspect the carcass and the area of the wound. Any areas of blood clotting and tissue damage should be removed with a clean knife. If left unattended, these spots become sites of decomposition that will spread to other areas. If your animal is hung whole, be sure to cut up the throat and remove the entire windpipe and esophagus, as these can be prime locations for early meat spoilage. Use clean paper towels to wipe out the body cavity to remove hair or other debris. If you are in camp for several days and insects are present, check often to insure flies are not laying eggs on the carcass.
If the weather is too warm and you do not have a means of maintaining the ideal conditions for hanging and aging, then the animal should be butchered as soon as possible. Before you go hunting make sure you have located a processing plant that will take your animal or make other arrangements to have the butchering done.
Game birds should have the entrails removed as soon as possible, using a clean knife and latex gloves.
Game birds can be plucked or skinned.
Birds must be cooled or the meat will spoil. They should be cooled and maintained at a temperature not exceeding 4o Celsius (39o F). Do not pile birds together in a bag or box. Do not leave waterfowl in the bottom of boats where water, mud and spilled gasoline may contaminate the meat.
Quick cleaning and freezing reduces bacteria and preserves the quality of the meat. If birds have heavy tissue damage from shot, they can be soaked in a solution of cool salt water to remove clotted blood before freezing them.
Rabbits, Hares and Squirrels
For cleaning small game, always use disposable gloves and a clean knife.
Peel the hide completely off and remove the tail before cutting the abdomen open and removing the entrails. Trim away any shot-damaged meat. The carcass should be cooled and maintained at a temperature not exceeding 4o Celsius (39o F), as soon as possible.
Preparing and Cooking Wild Meat for Consumption
Always wash your hands in warm, soapy water before preparing food and keep raw meat away from other food.
Thaw your meat in the refrigerator, microwave or oven, not on the kitchen counter. At room temperature, bacteria can grow in the outer layers of food before the inside thaws.
Utensils, equipment and food contact surfaces must be cleaned and sanitized after each use. Disinfecting is especially important where wild game or fish is being prepared in the same kitchen as regular “store-bought” meat, poultry or fish. Disinfection must occur between the two types of preparations.
You risk your health and the health of others when you do not thoroughly cook meat. Health officials indicate that meat must be cooked to a temperature of 82° Celsius (180° F) or higher. Use a meat thermometer to check that meat is cooked all the way through. Clean the thermometer after each use. Red meat is cooked when it is brown or grey inside and birds are cooked when the juices run clear.
You should ensure that bear meat, whether frozen or fresh, is always cooked to this temperature (and always to a grey colour, not red or pink) to prevent any possibility of Trichinosis, a parasitic disease found in bears in North America. Public health officials advise that smoking, drying, or microwaving may not cook bear meat to a high enough temperature.
For additional information on safe food handling and meat preparation, consult your local public health unit.
For more detailed guidelines on field dressing, skinning, and processing wild game, please refer to Ontario’s Hunter Education Manual.