Advice on Eating Game

Table of Contents

Advice on Contaminants in Game

NYS DOH also issues advisories about eating certain game. The primary contaminants of concern in waterfowl are PCBs, mirex, chlordane and DDT; and PCBs are the main concern in snapping turtles.

  • Snapping Turtles - Snapping turtles retain contaminants in their fat, liver, eggs and, to a lesser extent, muscle. If you choose to consume snapping turtles, you can reduce your exposure by carefully trimming away all fat and discarding the fat, liver and eggs prior to cooking the meat or preparing soup. Women of childbearing age, infants and children under the age of 15 should AVOID EATING snapping turtles or soups made with their meat. (Contaminant: PCBs)
  • Wild Waterfowl - Mergansers are the most heavily contaminated waterfowl species and should NOT BE EATEN. EAT UP TO TWO MEALS A MONTH of other wild waterfowl; you should skin them and remove all fat before cooking, and discard stuffing after cooking. Wood ducks and Canada geese are less contaminated than other wild waterfowl species and diving ducks are more contaminated than dabbler ducks. (Contaminants: PCBs, mirex, chlordane, DDT)

    Recent data indicate that waterfowl residing in the Hudson River between Hudson Falls and Troy have higher PCB levels than waterfowl from other portions of the Hudson River and are likely to have higher PCB levels than waterfowl from other areas of the state. To help reduce PCB exposures, you may want to harvest your waterfowl from other locations on the Hudson River or in other areas of New York State, particularly during the early season when many of the available birds are likely to be resident waterfowl (i.e., non-migratory). Because PCBs may have a greater effect on young children or the unborn child, it is particularly important for women under 50 and children under 15 to minimize their PCB exposures.

Lead in Shot and Bullets

The use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting is prohibited in New York State, and waterfowl hunters are required to use NYS DEC approved non-lead shot alternatives. Remove all bullets, slugs, shot, lead fragments and affected meat (including feathers, fur, debris, etc.) from game when preparing it for consumption. Studies indicate that lead shot can contaminate game meat. Thus, people who eat game harvested with lead shot may be exposed to lead. This is of greatest concern for young children because they are particularly susceptible to the toxic effects of lead. You may want to consider using non-lead shot alternatives to hunt other small game as well. More information on lead shot alternatives is provided on the NYS DEC website.

Small lead fragments can be present in venison from deer harvested with lead bullets. Some bullets shatter into small pieces that can be too small to detect by sight, feel, or when chewing the meat. For advice on how to eliminate or reduce the potential risk of consuming lead fragments go to the NYS DEC website. If you have any questions regarding how to reduce the amount of lead in venison, please contact your NYS DEC Regional Wildlife Office. For questions about potential health effects from lead, call NYS DOH at (518) 402-7800 or toll free at (800) 458-1158. Studies have shown that people can be exposed to lead from shooting at indoor and outdoor firing ranges. For additional information on how to minimize your exposure to lead, call the NYS DOH at (518) 402-7800 or toll free at (800) 458-1158.

Good Sanitary Practices - Bacteria, Viruses and Parasites in Game

Game and other meats can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites that can cause illness. Avoid directly handling game when you have cuts or open sores on your hands. You should harvest game that act and look healthy, and follow good sanitary practices when preparing them. We recommend that you wear nitrile, rubber or plastic protective gloves while field dressing, skinning or butchering.

We also recommend that you remove intestines soon after harvest, don't eat intestines and avoid direct contact with intestinal contents. Hands, utensils and work surfaces should be washed before and after handling any raw food, including game meat. Game should be kept cool (with ice or refrigerated below 45°F or 7°C) until butchered and then should be refrigerated or frozen. Some hunters prefer to hang big game for several days before butchering; this should not be done unless the game can be kept at temperatures consistently below 45°F. Game birds and other types of wild game meat should be cooked to an internal temperature (in the thickest part) of 165°F (74°C).

In 2008, the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets discovered a type of tuberculosis (TB) bacterium (Mycobacterium bovis) infecting a captive deer in Columbia County. This bacterium causes TB in cattle and can spread to other species, including humans. Although this infection has not been found in any other deer at this point, when field dressing deer, hunters should follow good sanitary practices and should be alert to abscesses in the lungs and rib cage, intestines, liver or stomach. Anyone seeing these signs or other unusual lesions in deer should contact the NYS DEC at (518) 402-8965.

Advice on Eating Raw or Partially Cooked Meats

Foods of animal origin, such as pork, poultry, beef, dairy products, eggs, fish and shellfish, can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites that can cause illness. Persons at high risk (for example, those who are immunocompromised, suffer from liver disease or other chronic diseases) can be more susceptible to and more severely affected by these infectious diseases. This is why we recommend that all of these foods be thoroughly cooked before eating. Government agencies and the food industry strive to minimize contamination of raw animal foods and provide healthful food products.

Botulism in Waterfowl

In recent years, large numbers of some species of Lake Erie fish and waterfowl have been found dead, sick and dying, many of them as a result of botulism poisoning. The botulism poison is produced by Clostridium botulinum, a bacterium that is common in the environment and can produce harmful levels of botulism poison under some conditions. This poison has been found in some of the affected fish and waterfowl. The botulism poison can cause illness and death If eaten by humans or animals. Cooking may not destroy the botulism poison. This problem may also occur in other waters, and we don't know whether all or only some fish and waterfowl species can be affected. NYS DEC continues to monitor and investigate this problem.

No human cases of botulism poisoning have been linked to these events. However, as a precaution, do not eat any fish or game if they are found dead or dying, act abnormally or seem sick. If you must handle dead or dying fish, birds or other animals, cover your hands with disposable nitrile, rubber or plastic protective gloves or a plastic bag.

Rabies and Chronic Wasting Disease

Rabies and Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) are two diseases that can cause abnormal behavior in deer. Rabies can be found in any mammal (especially raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes) and is found only occasionally in New York State deer. CWD is a disease of deer and elk. In 2005, CWD was found for the first time in captive and wild white-tailed deer in New York State. This disease has been present for several years in some deer or elk from several Western and mid-Western states and some Canadian provinces.

Rabies is a viral infection which causes a rapidly progressive disease of the animal's nervous system that leads to paralysis and death, usually within several days after signs of the disease first appear. Rabid deer may seem to lose their normal fear of humans, appear to have injured hind legs, salivate excessively, or be found lying on the ground struggling. Rabies can be transmitted from infected mammals to humans by exposure to infected tissues, particularly nervous tissue and saliva. Treatment can prevent rabies from developing in exposed humans. Rabies is almost always fatal in exposed humans who develop the disease. Thorough cooking will inactivate the rabies virus (see "Good Sanitary Practices - Bacteria, Viruses and Parasites in Game", but meat from infected game should not be eaten. Hunters should be aware that deer with rabies might have symptoms similar to CWD.

CWD is a brain infection of deer and elk that leads to loss of body functions, poor body condition and abnormal behavior such as staggering or very poor posture. It eventually leads to the death of the animal. CWD appears to be caused by abnormal, infectious proteins called prions. There is currently no evidence that CWD is linked to disease in people. Cooking does not destroy the CWD prion.

The following precautions are recommended to minimize the risk of transmission of infectious diseases when handling or processing animals:

  • Do not handle or eat deer or other game that appear sick, act strangely, or are found dead.
  • Wear nitrile, rubber or latex gloves when field dressing game.
  • Avoid handling or cutting through the skull or spinal cord. Use separate dedicated knives, saws and cutting boards to butcher deer, particularly if you cut through the spinal cord or skull (such as when removing antlers). Do not use regular kitchen utensils. Wash thoroughly with soap and water any knives, butchering tools, work surfaces, hands and any other part of the body that has been exposed to animal tissue, blood, urine or feces. Equipment should then be rinsed with boiling (212°F) water or sanitized with a chemical sanitizer.
  • As an additional precaution against CWD, you can soak cleaned knives and tools for one hour in a fresh solution of household chlorine bleach (unscented) mixed with an equal amount of water (for example, 1 quart bleach with 1 quart of water), air dry, then rinse with clean water. Wipe down cleaned counters and other surfaces with the bleach solution and allow them to air dry.
  • Warning: When handling bleach, wear nitrile, rubber or latex gloves and avoid getting bleach in eyes or on skin or clothing. If bleach contacts eyes, skin, or clothing, immediately wash affected area with water and remove affected clothing. Make sure that enough fresh air is available because bleach may cause eye, nose, or throat irritation.
  • Should you decide to take the skull cap (with antlers), make sure to thoroughly clean the skull cap, utensils and work surfaces with bleach solution, as described above.
  • Avoid handling the brain and spinal tissues or fluids, saliva and mouth parts of game animals. If these tissues or fluids are handled, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water. If these tissues or fluids make contact with a person's eyes, nose, mouth, or fresh open breaks in a person's skin, contact the local health department to see if rabies exposure may have occurred and whether the animal should be tested for rabies.
  • If possible, request that the meat from your deer be processed separately, without adding other hunters' deer meat.
  • The brain, spinal cord and other nervous tissue, spleen, pancreas, eyes, tonsils, and lymph nodes of game may have CWD prions, and additional organs (liver, kidney, heart and salivary glands) may pose a risk of infection for a number of diseases. Normal field dressing will eliminate most of these organs and tissues. Lymph nodes can be eliminated by boning out the meat and carefully trimming the fat and connective tissue. Although no current evidence links CWD to human health, out of an abundance of caution, we recommend that people not consume a known or suspect CWD positive animal.

For additional information about CWD and rabies, visit the NYS DOH website. For an update on CWD testing in New York State and for information on wild deer, visit the NYS DEC website. For information on captive deer, visit the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets website.