STARKVILLLE — In Mississippi, more than 200,000 deer are harvested each year, providing families with a source of free-range meat. However, hunters must exercise care when processing deer to ensure good-tasting, high quality, safe meat products.
Byron Williams, associate Extension and research professor in the Department of Food Science, Nutrition, and Health Promotion at Mississippi State University, said the hunter should wash the inside of the carcass immediately after field dressing if there is a source of drinkable water. Washing immediately is especially important if the digestive tract was punctured.
He said the hunter should move the deer to a clean workspace that has additional clean water available and a way to chill the meat before removing the hide. Having plenty of clean water on hand to wash the carcass inside and out and keeping the work area, hands and utensils clean are key, he said.
“If you penetrate through a dirty hide with a knife in an environment with mud, dirt or muddy water, you will be exposing the carcass to much more potentially harmful bacteria,” Williams said. “Even if you had a good, clean source of water, you would not be able to remove all the bacteria. So if you have to drag the deer through a field, or any area where it could get muddy or dirty, then do not field dress it.”
Williams, who is an MSU Extension Service food scientist and Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station researcher, said to use clean water to remove dirt and mud from the outside of the carcass before removing the hide or internal organs after the deer is in an appropriate work space.
“Make sure to get the free fluid out of the cavity, and then take the hide off if it has been field dressed,” he said.
While processing deer, hunters should be as sanitary as they can be, Williams said, because dirty tools can introduce harmful bacteria into the meat.
“Dirty knives and dirty hands are two of the biggest sources of contamination,” Williams said. “Get one knife to do the dirty work and another knife for food contact. Also, disposable gloves would be greatly beneficial.”
Williams said that hunters should hang their deer immediately after they finish cleaning it.
“The carcass should be hung between two to 10 days, as long as the temperature is between 28 and 40 degrees,” Williams said. “The hotter the outdoor temperature is, the more bacterial growth there will be.”
After the deer has been hung up for the desired number of days, it should be processed and put in the freezer. Williams said that hunters should not freeze the meat before it has completed the relaxation stage, which happens after about two days hanging at refrigerated temperatures.
“If you freeze the carcass or whole muscles prior to this process, this will most likely increase toughness of the meat,” Williams said. “Do not freeze deer meat when it is still hot. Do not freeze before rigor is completed and the muscles are relaxed.”
Bronson Strickland, wildlife specialist with the MSU Extension Service, said one thing that affects the flavor and texture of the deer meat is the sex and age of the deer.
“A mature buck can have more of a gamey flavor and tougher texture than a young doe,” Strickland said. “What’s been shown to be influential is how quickly the animal dies. If it wasn’t a quick, lethal shot, lactic acids will build up in the tissue and may affect flavor.”
Strickland said that the single most important thing to remember is the immediate attention and care of the deer after it has been harvested.
“The carcass needs to be cooled as soon as possible,” Strickland said.
Strickland advised field dressing the deer if adequate water and conditions are available.
“Most individuals do not do this because of inconvenience, so the carcass is not cooled down. The hunter’s priority should be field dressing, cleaning and cooling the carcass as soon as possible to ensure quality meat,” he said.