Proper Care and Handling of Venison from Field to Table

To reduce the risk of foodborne illness, hunters need to handle, process, and prepare deer properly, being careful to prevent contamination and improve food safety of venison from field to table.
Proper Care and Handling of Venison from Field to Table - Articles


food safety of venison

Bring These Items When You Hunt

  • A sharp knife
  • A small hatchet
  • A whetstone or steel for sharpening
  • Several feet of rope or nylon cord
  • Six-inch rubber bands
  • Clean cloths or paper towels
  • Sealable storage bags
  • A large cooler full of ice or snow
  • Disposable gloves for dressing
  • Clean drinking water

Field Dressing

  • To reduce the risk of exposure to disease, wear disposable gloves while handling deer.
  • Use clean water, premoistened wipes, or alcohol swabs to clean the knife frequently or between cuts to avoid dragging bacteria into the meat.
  • Place the deer on its back, elevate its front legs, and spread its hind legs. Support carcass in this position with rocks or sticks.
  • Cut around the anus to loosen the bung so it will come out when the entrails are removed. Tying off the bung with rope, cord, or rubber bands will prevent feces from contacting the carcass during removal.
  • Using a clean knife, cut along the midline from the breastbone to the genitals. Make the cut by lifting the skin and muscle together.
  • Avoid cutting the paunch and intestines since bacteria associated with foodborne illness may be found in these organs.
  • If the organs smell offensive or exhibit greenish discharge, black blood, or blood clots in the muscle, do not consume meat from this carcass. Discard the carcass properly.
  • Cut the diaphragm free from the rib cage.
  • Cut the windpipe and gullet at the base of the throat.
  • Pull out the lungs, heart, and entrails. Place variety meats in a plastic storage bag and store on ice or refrigerate as soon as possible.

Hints for Field Dressing

  • Dress the carcass as soon as possible.
  • Remove all visible dirt, feces, hair, and bloodshot areas.
  • Wipe out the cavity with individual paper towels. Prop the cavity open with a clean stick or hang the carcass to aid in air circulation.
  • If you wash the cavity with water, dry the area quickly to prevent spoilage.
  • To prevent bacterial growth, quickly cool the carcass to 35-40°F.
  • After cleaning the cavity, you can place ice or snow sealed in plastic storage bags and pack them in the cavity. Secure the bags in place by tying the cavity shut with rope or cord.
  • Keep the carcass out of direct sunlight and allow for adequate air circulation.
  • It is recommended that the hide be left on the carcass during transport to protect the meat from contamination and to prevent it from drying out.

Transporting and Processing Game

  • Keep the carcass cool during transport. Keep it out of sunlight. Do not tie the deer across the hood or roof of a car. Do not put a deer in the trunk while it's still warm. Allow for adequate air circulation.
  • Transport the eviscerated carcass to the processing facility as soon as possible. Processing should be done only by businesses with fully refrigerated facilities.
  • If you are processing your own game, hold the carcass at 40°F or less. Freezing the carcass before rigor may toughen the meat.
  • If aging the carcass, do so at 40°F or less for two to three days, at most.
  • If you are using the meat for sausage, aging is not necessary.
  • During processing, frequently clean your knife between cuts to avoid contaminating the meat.
  • Wash your knife, hands, and cutting boards often with warm, soapy water.

Kitchen Processing

  • Store any unfrozen meat in the refrigerator, and use it within 2-3 days.
  • Keep raw meat separated and on trays with a lip to prevent cross-contamination in the refrigerator.
  • If marinating, do so in the refrigerator.
  • Thaw all frozen meats in the refrigerator or microwave and use immediately.
  • Heat all game meats, including jerky, to 160°F before drying to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Use a calibrated meat thermometer to ensure proper cooking.
  • Jerky should be dried sufficiently after processing and can be stored for 1-2 months under refrigeration (< 40°F).
  • Do not can meat unless you have a calibrated or recently tested pressure canner. Proper pressure and time are critical to ensure safe canned meat.
  • Thoroughly clean and sanitize all equipment, including the tabletop meat grinder.

Freezing Tips

  • Cut and package the meat into meal-size portions (about one pound).
  • Use heavily waxed paper, freezer wrap, heavy-duty aluminum foil, vacuum bags, or plastic freezer storage bags for meat storage.
  • Wrap meat tightly, and remove all air from the bag before sealing.
  • Using a permanent marker, label packages with contents and dates.
  • Space packages in freezer to allow proper air circulation for cooling and freezing.
  • Once packages are solidly frozen (within 24 hours), you can restack them within the freezer.
  • Properly wrapped game meat will store in the freezer for 9-12 months. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, it is legal to have venison in home freezers year-round.
  • To avoid quality deterioration, do not refreeze thawed products.

Prepared by Catherine N. Cutter, associate professor and food safety specialist.