Food safety outdoors

Food safety matters when it comes to small game.

A hunted rabbit lying on the leaves outside.
Photo: Wade Syers, Michigan State University Extension.

Every fall, when hunting season comes around there is always excitement about deer season. While the excitement is justified, don’t forget about the small game season. According to the Michigan Department of Nature Resources (MDNR), small game can include many species of animals such as coyote, opossum, porcupine, and more. Some of the most desirable small game species are squirrel, rabbit and hare, as they can provide delicious, wholesome meat for the dinner table when harvested in a food-safe manner.

Food safety hazards can come from contamination, which is one of the main food safety risks associated with handling and consuming game animals. Contamination can be thought of as the presence of something that makes food impure or unwholesome. Contamination of wild game meat can come in three forms: physical, chemical or biological. Examples of contaminates include leaves and dirt (physical), cleaning supplies (chemical) and pathogens (biological). With regard to small game, there are many pathogens, or germs, that can make you sick. For example, E. coli, and Salmonella can be found in the digestive tracts of warm-blooded animals, and small game is no exception.    

Just like with deer, when processing small game, there are food safety practices that can help limit food safety risks and help you enjoy a safer meal. Some suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Michigan State University Extension include:

  • Do not shoot, handle or eat meat from animals that look sick or are acting strangely.
  • The sanitary handling of small game begins with a clean kill. Shot placement that grazes or ruptures parts of the digestive tract can lead to contamination.
  • Clean and sanitize knives and surfaces to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Wear disposable gloves to protect you from coming in contact with harmful pathogens when dressing the animal or handling the meat.
  • While field dressing, avoid puncturing the internal organs as this can lead to biological contamination.
  • Cool the carcass quickly to less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Bacteria grow the fastest in the Temperature Danger Zone, which are those temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees.
  • Package small game meat in food-safe containers or wrappings, and then store the meat in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or lower for up to three days and in the freezer at 0 degrees or lower for six to nine months.
  • For safety, cook wild game meat, including small game, to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.

Since contamination can occur at any step in the process from harvest to field dressing to cooking, take special care to keep these food safety recommendations in mind. Following these recommendations will help to ensure a safe and delicious meal. For answers to your food safety questions, call MSU Extension's Food Safety Hotline at 1-877-643-9882. For more information on food safety, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

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