Foodsafe Tips for DIY Venison Processing

By Christopher R. Raines

The unofficial holiday of “Deer Season” is November 30, 2009 in Pennsylvania, which means there is going to be a lot of do-it-yourself deer processing going on in garages around the Commonwealth during the next few weeks.  The best way to learn how to process deer is by doing, yet as you go along, mistakes will probably be made.  And not just mistakes dealing with how meat is cut, but also with some general food safety no-no’s and other “could be better” lessons.  Below are a few things to remember/consider.

Some quick tips to help in keeping your venison more safe:

  • Do your very best to keep the deer COLD.  Temperature management can be a tool on your side when it comes to maintaing food quality and safety.  Field dress the deer to ensure adequate body heat loss. If at all possible, hang the deer at or below 40°F.  The warmer the worse for quality and better for microbial growth (as in, good for the microbes, not you).
  • Field dress the deer as cleanly as possible, and when transporting the carcass, be cognizant of keeping it clean.  The dirtier, the less safe, and the quicker it can spoil.  Remember this picture?  Yeah, avoid this level of  contamination as best you can.
  • Make sure your knives and (possibly) saws are CLEAN (removed any visible soil).  To sanitize knives, a dip water >180°F should do it (to remove what you can’t see).  Remember, cleaning and sanitizing aren’t the same thing.
  • When skinning, make an effort to have the designated “clean” hand (holding the knife) and the designated “dirty” hand (for pulling/holding away hide).  You might have to stop, wash your hands, and switch hands.
  • Well, in that case, wash your hands periodically anyway…
  • Or, you can wear plastic gloves… (which really don’t do any good once their soiled…)
  • Wash the deer, but make sure it’s dry before cutting.  Also consider the vinegar (acetic acid) strategy.
  • Toss the ribs (compost, dumpster, you choose).  The 2-3 lbs. (max) of meat you can get from between the ribs was also exposed after field dressing, and could be home to who-knows-what.
  • If it looks the meat looks or smells funny, ask yourself if you think its worth the risk.  Is it just a blemish that can be trimmed away?  Or perhaps there was some sort of systemic infection?
  • Cut venison on a clean surface.  If you’re using a cutting board(s) and the last time you used it was this time last year for the same job, a soak in some bleach water is definitely a good idea.
  • Once meat is cut, wrap/bag it, and get it in the fridge.  It’s not a good idea to cut your venison and then leave it on the workbench for an hour while you work on a different job.
  • How cold should the fridge be? <40°F.  Or, freeze it.
  • Remember to label what the cut is (or what you think it is) and with the date when wrapping/bagging.  That little bit of info could be very handy later.
  • If you are canning venison, take into consideration the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning and what it recommends
  • If you are making your own jerky, remember that the meat needs to be heated to at least 160°F to kill pathogens.  Just because jerky is dry/drier, it does not mean there aren’t any bugs there.  There very well could be vegetative (just hanging out) pathogens there that weren’t inactivated during drying.  This means they might to start growing again once they are in you.  Exposing meat to hot (> 160°F) marinade before drying is a great food-safe practice for the in home jerky maker.