White tailed deer at sunrise

Buck at sunrise

Concern has grown in recent years over a disease affecting deer in Pennsylvania called chronic wasting disease, or CWD. The disease affects deer, elk and moose, eventually resulting in their death.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has specific CWD guidelines for hunters to follow. All hunters should review those guidelines to be aware of CWD symptoms in deer and elk. Hunters should take a few simple precautions when handling and transporting deer and elk carcasses from Disease Management Areas (DMA). To ensure the meat is of wholesome quality, hunters should prepare in advance to keep the meat safe.

So, how is wild game at risk for contamination? It starts at the time of harvest from the field. Field dressing any wild game requires important pre-planning strategies. For example, harvesting deer in the fall requires attention to temperature control of the warm carcass when outside temperature rise above 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Improper handling or lack of temperature control will allow natural pathogens the opportunity to grow, resulting in highly contaminated meat that may impose serious health risks.

In addition to monitoring and maintaining temperature control, hunters need to be aware of cross contamination potential. Understandably, the environment that the animal is harvested from often has sources of additional contamination. Here are some tips to minimize the risks during field-dressing of wild game.

Hunters should plan to take paper towels or plastic to place down as a barrier between the ground and tools, minimizing the risk for cross-contamination. A plastic drop cloth serves as a great barrier to minimizing cross-contamination.

Carrying a pair of disposable plastic gloves is a good practice to get into the habit of doing. Always consider protecting yourself from the possible risks of contracting a foodborne pathogen, especially if you have any open wounds on the hand. Carry some prepackage alcohol wipes to wash your hands before, during and after removing the entrails.

When the outside temperature is above 41 F, consider taking coolers packed with either bags or blocks of ice. In warm weather, you may want to bring a can of ground black pepper to sprinkle over the skinned areas of the carcass to prevent contamination from flies. If you’re working with small game, remove the hide as quickly as possible to allow the carcass to cool fast when surrounded by ice. Large game should have the hide removed quickly after harvest if the outside temperature is above 41 F.

The worst practice to perform, and often seen, is wrapping large game in plastic or a tarp to keep it clean when transporting it. Wrapping the carcass only traps the heat, leading the internal temperature of the meat to remain in the temperature danger zone. If at all possible, try packing the internal cavity with bags of ice to cool the carcass down. The longer you let the carcass remain at temperatures above 41 F from the time of harvest till the time of processing, the greater the risk for foodborne pathogens to grow and become dangerous.

The carcass should be cut within two days after harvest if it was chilled rapidly and sooner if warmer temperatures prevail.

If you intend to grind the meat into sausage, aging is not necessary. Extended aging of venison is not required. For the best flavor, limit fresh venison to eight months of frozen storage, and seasoned and cured venison to four months of frozen storage.

The next time you go hunting, be prepared in planning for the safety of the meat you harvest. As you know, it takes a lot of work, time and patience to be successful in your hunt and the last thing you would want is to mishandle the meat leading to a foodborne illness.

Rick Kralj is the Penn State Extension educator in food safety and quality in Jefferson County.


On Sept. 21, the USDA instituted a second round of funding, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2, to ease at least some of the pain and fiscal stress the crisis has caused farmers, ranchers and growers. Read more