Food Safety and Inspection Service
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Food Safety Focus
October 1999

Food Safety Of Farm-Raised Game

Venison, antelope, boar, pheasant, and other exotic species are now farm raised in the United States, and are under voluntary USDA inspection. For an increasing number of restaurants and home diners, exotic meats are becoming more commonplace. The Hotline has been getting inquiries about these food animal species. Included here are answers to questions about game animals.

What is Game? Game are wild animals and birds. Farm-raised game are originally wild species of animals and birds that have been raised for sale under existing State regulations. Large native game animals living in America include antelope, buffalo, bear, caribou, deer, elk, moose, reindeer, and wild boar. Elsewhere in the world, even rarer varieties eaten by humans are camel, elephant, kangaroo, wild goats, wild sheep, zebra, and other species.

Small game animals include alligator, rabbit, squirrel, beaver, muskrat, opossum, raccoon, armadillo, porcupine, and other species.

Game birds include grouse, guineafowl, partridge, squab (young pigeon), quail, pheasant, wild ducks, wild geese, wild turkey, and other species. Rock Cornish hens -- thought by many consumers to be game birds -- are actually young domesticated chickens.

NOTE: Game species raised on farms under appropriate regulations can be sold. Wild game species, that can be legally hunted under Federal or State regulatory authority, cannot be sold, but can be harvested for personal consumption. If you have questions about the harvest of wild game species, contact your State fish and wildlife agencies, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Federal regulations on migratory species.

Background on "Venison" Game Animals In culinary terms, "venison" can be meat from deer, elk, moose, caribou, antelope, and pronghorn. However, when this meat is offered for sale, the name of the specific animal must be specified on the package label.

Deer live in woodlands all over Europe, Asia, northern Africa and America. There are many deer species of various sizes but all the males grow antlers. The meat is lean and has a gamey flavor that can be made milder if soaked overnight (see page 8).

Elk meat tastes like mild (almost sweet) beef, with only a very faint venison flavor. Elk can be substituted equally for venison in most standard venison recipes. Elk are from North America, Europe, and Asia.

Moose is the largest member of the venison family standing about 6 1/2 feet at the shoulder. It’s native from North America. The meat is similar to elk.

Caribou (reindeer) are slightly larger than white-tailed deer. Both males and females have antlers. The meat is somewhat sweeter than other venison. They live primarily in North America and Siberia.

Antelope are currently farmed in Texas, where black buck and nilgai antelope, native to Africa, are allowed to roam on huge preserves. Males are called bucks, bulls, or stags; females, does or cows; and unweaned young are fawns or calves. Antelope meat is leaner, but similar in taste, to that of deer.

Pronghorn (once classified as "antelope") is the last survivor of a species native to North America, with the largest herd in Wyoming. Pronghorn meat is leaner, but similar in taste, to that of deer.

Other Game Animals Bison (buffalo) is native to North America. Once about 60 million in number, bison were hunted almost to extinction by the 1890’s. Currently there are more than 150,000 animals being raised across North America today.

Musk-ox is a heavy-set, shaggy-coated wild ox that lives in northern North America, the Arctic islands, and Greenland. The meat tastes similar to buffalo.

Collared Peccary (javelina) is a hoofed animal native to parts of Mexico, South America, and the southwest U.S. A substitute is fresh pork.

Rabbits sold for consumption in the U.S. are not North American cottontails, but are usually either crosses between New Zealand and Belgian varieties, Chinese rabbits, or Scottish hares.

Wild boar, along with feral (wild) hogs, are found in 23 states in the U.S. and are estimated to number over 2 million. Like our domestic swine, these animals are not native to North America, but were originally brought over from other continents. Originally domesticated and then released into the wild, these animals are now hybrids.

While some states have limited hunting seasons, most states consider them a nuisance and encourage hunting them for personal consumption.

Game Birds The game bird industry in the U.S. raises millions of birds for sale to restaurants and direct to consumers. These include up to 10 million pheasants, 37 million quail (including 12 million Bobwhite), 4 million Chukar partridges, 1 million Mallard ducks, 200,000 wild turkeys, and several other bird species.

Wild Ducks – The Chinese were the first to raise wild ducks domestically for food. Today’s domestic wild ducks are descendants of either the Muscovy or Mallard species. America’s Long Island ducks are offspring of Peking ducks (a variety of Mallard) brought from China in the late 1800’s. A young duck or duckling (usually under 8 weeks of age) has dark, tender meat and weighs about 3 1/2 to 5 pounds. A mature duck is usually over 6 months of age and has tougher meat.

Goose – Geese were farm-raised in ancient Egypt, China, and India. Today’s goose weighs between 5 and 18 pounds. A young bird of either sex ("goose" is the female of the species; "gander," the male) has tender meat, while a mature goose of either sex has tougher meat.

Guineafowl – This relative of the chicken and partridge, sometimes called a guinea hen or African pheasant, was thought to originate in Guinea, West Africa. A young guineafowl, about 11 weeks old, has tender meat, while a mature bird has tougher meat. Female guinea fowl are more tender than males. The meat is light red and slightly dry with a mild gamey flavor. Due to their small size – about 2 to 3 pounds, including giblets – guinea fowl are usually sold whole.

Partridge – There are no native partridge species in the United States. Most partridge in the market are from European or African varieties. The Grey partridge, a European species, was imported from Hungary and raised in England. Found as far away as the Middle East, this variety is sometimes called Hungarian partridge. Chukar is a partridge species from India.

Pheasant - Originally from Asia, the female of this medium-size game bird (weighing about 3 pounds) has more tender, plump, and juicy meat than the male, which weighs about 5 pounds. Young birds can be roasted, but older birds need moist heat because their flesh is drier and leaner.

Quail – American quail are known regionally by various names: Bobwhite, partridge, and quail (blue, California, mountain and Montezuma). American quail nest on the ground and are not related to the European quail of the partridge family. A ready-to-cook quail weighs about 3 to 7 ounces, including the giblets. Due to their small size, they are usually roasted and served whole. The meat is dark, but mild flavored.

Squab or Pigeon – This species originated in the Middle East and Asia, and is one of the oldest birds known to man. A squab is a young, immature pigeon about 4 weeks old. Because it is too young to fly, the meat is very tender. Squab usually weigh about 12 to 16 ounces, including giblets, and have dark, delicately flavored meat. They are usually stuffed whole and roasted. A pigeon has been allowed to mature and has tougher meat than a squab.

Wild Turkeys -- Turkey is one of North America’s native birds. The name "turkey" was originally applied to an African bird, now known as the guineafowl, which was believed to have originated in Turkey. When the Europeans came upon the American turkey, they thought it was the same bird as the African guinea fowl, and so gave it the name turkey, although the two species are quite distinct. Compared to their domestic counterparts, wild turkeys are leaner, less meaty, not as tender, and have a stronger flavor.

Are Game Animals Inspected by USDA? Some game animals are inspected by USDA and others by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has mandatory inspection authority over all food products from cattle, sheep, swine, goats, horses, mules, and other equines, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and guineas. This includes processed products containing more than 3 percent raw meat or 2 percent or more cooked poultry meat.

Additionally, FSIS does voluntary inspection of reindeer, elk, antelope, water buffalo, bison, migratory water fowl (birds that swim such as ducks and geese), game birds, rabbits, ratites (emu, ostrich, and rhea), and squab.

FDA has jurisdiction over imported fish, buffalo, rabbits, venison, wild game, and all other foods not covered by the Federal meat and poultry inspection laws. Meat and poultry exported from another country must meet all safety standards applied to foods produced in the United States, and this must be verified annually.

How Are Game Farm Raised? Game animals are either raised on farms or ranches. If ranch raised, the animals are allowed to roam at will over hundreds of acres, foraging off foliage. Farm-raised game live in more confined outdoor areas and are fed grains such as wheat, alfalfa, or corn. What the animal eats can affect the taste of the meat.

Game bird species are raised separately from each other. Some birds consider birds from other species as intruders and will kill them.

The chicks need a clean, healthy environment, free of predators and parasites, with lots of clean, fresh water, fresh air, and feed. They are kept in warm buildings with floors covered with litter made of pine shavings, rice or peanut hulls, sugarcane fiber, and ground corncobs. Game birds are fed a diet similar to domestic poultry, typically a low-fat mix which is higher in protein than that fed to chickens. The feed may contain corn, alfalfa meal, wheat, soybean, meat bone scrap, whey, fish meal, and a vitamin-mineral mix. The FDA regulates animal feed.

When they are a few weeks old, game birds may be transferred to flight cages, typically 130 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 6 1/2 feet high, with a floor cover of natural vegetation. There they must be protected from weather extremes, predators, people, and themselves. Access to a shed protects them from the elements.

Are Hormones and Antibiotics Used in Game Animal Production? Hormones are not used in raising game birds or game animals; however, antibiotics may be used.

Wild birds and waterfowl are susceptible to many diseases and parasites, especially where large numbers are being raised in relatively small areas. The FDA approves medications that can be used to treat food animals. Very few drugs have been approved for game birds. Those approved are administered in their feed or water. The drugs are either antibiotics or anti-parasitics.

The FDA has strict guidelines for the use of drugs in animal production. If a drug is given, it must be used according to its labeling. Almost all these drugs require a "withdrawal" period -- usually up to 5 days -- from the time it is administered until it is legal to slaughter the animal or bird. This is so residues will not be in the meat. FSIS randomly samples the meat at slaughter and tests for any drug residues.

What Foodborne Bacteria Are Associated With Game? As with any perishable meat, poultry, or fish, harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli, can be found on raw or undercooked game. They live in the intestinal tracts of game, livestock, poultry, dogs, cats, and other warm-blooded animals, and must be eaten to cause illness. Foodborne bacteria cannot enter the body through a skin cut.

There are about 2,000 species of Salmonella bacteria. Escherichia coli can colonize in the intestines of animals, which can contaminate muscle meat at slaughter. E.coli O157:H7 is a rare strain that produces large quantities of a potent toxin that forms in and causes severe damage to the lining of the intestine. One disease produced by it is called Hemorrhagic Colitis and is characterized by bloody diarrhea. Another disease, Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), can cause kidney failure in the very young. A similar illness, thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), may occur in adults.

Bacteria multiply rapidly in the "Danger Zone" -- temperatures between 40 and 140 F. Cross-contamination can occur if raw meat or its juices come in contact with cooked foods or foods that will be eaten raw, such as salad. Freezing does not kill bacteria. Only cooking to 160 F can guarantee bacteria has been destroyed.

How Does Game Meat Differ from Domestic Meat? Because their diets and activity levels are not the same as that of domestic animals and poultry, the meat of farm-raised game animals has a different flavor – stronger than domesticated species and milder than wild game. The factors that determine the meat's quality include the age of the animal (younger animals are more tender), the animal's diet, and the time of year the animal was harvested. (The best is in the fall, after a plentiful spring and summer feeding.)

Equally important is how the animal was handled in the field. The animal should be eviscerated within an hour of harvest, and the meat refrigerated within a few hours. Meat is damaged (and sometimes ruined) if it is not dressed, transported, and chilled properly.

In general, wild game is less tender than meat from domestic animals because the wild animals get more exercise and have less fat. Any fat is generally bad tasting and should be removed. For maximum tenderness, most game meat should be cooked slowly and not overdone. It can be cooked with moist heat by braising or with dry heat by roasting. Ways to keep game moist include basting, larding, or barding (see "Cooking Methods" on page 8).

Nutrition Nutrient data on game birds and animals can be found on the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Food Composition Database (search on the species of interest): www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/index.html
Are Game "Red" or "White" Meat? Game birds are poultry and considered "white" meat. Because they are birds of flight, however, the breast meat is darker than domestic chicken and turkey (which stand a lot, but do little, if any, flying). This is because more oxygen is needed by muscles doing work, and the oxygen is delivered to those muscles by the red cells in the blood.

All game animals are "red" meat. One of the proteins in meat, myoglobin, holds the oxygen in the muscle, and gives the meat a darker color.

What Does "Natural" Mean? All fresh meat qualifies as "natural." Products labeled "natural" cannot contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient. The product and its ingredients cannot be more than minimally processed (ground, for example). All products claiming to be "natural" should be accompanied by a brief statement explaining what is meant by the term "natural."

Some companies promote their game as "natural" because they claim the animals weren't exposed to antibiotics or hormones and were totally raised on a range instead of being "finished" in a feedlot.

Food Product Dating Product dating is not required by Federal regulations. However, many stores and processors may voluntarily date packages of raw game or processed game products. If a calendar date is shown, there must be a phrase explaining the meaning of the date. It's not important if a date expires after freezing game because all foods stay safe while properly frozen.
How is Game Handled Safely? FRESH GAME. Because the demand is not as high as for domestic meats, game is usually sold frozen in supermarkets. However, fresh game is sometimes available. Always select the meat just before checking out at the register. Put fresh game in a disposable plastic bag (if available) to contain any leakage that could cross-contaminate cooked foods or produce. Make the grocery store your last stop before going home.

At home, refrigerate game immediately at 40 F or below. Cook or freeze (0 F) game birds and ground game within 1 or 2 days; game animals, within 3 to 5 days. If kept frozen continuously, it will be safe indefinitely.

READY-PREPARED GAME. If picking up cooked game or other fully- cooked product from a restaurant or other foodservice outlet, be sure it is either hot or cold when you pick it up. Use hot food within 2 hours or cut it into several pieces and refrigerate in shallow, covered containers. Eat either cold or reheated to 165 F (hot and steaming). It is safe to freeze ready-prepared game. For recommended storage times, see the chart on page 11.

Quantity to Buy When buying large whole game birds, allow about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of raw product per person. For small game birds, such as quail, two whole birds per serving may be necessary. Raw boneless meat yields about 3 servings per pound after cooking. Estimate 3 to 4 ounces per person for fully-cooked products.
How Do You Reduce the "Gamey" Flavor? The distinct game flavor of either birds or animals will be milder after soaking the meat overnight in the refrigerator in either a salt or vinegar solution.
  • Salt solution – one tablespoon per quart of cold water
  • Vinegar solution – one cup per quart of cold water

Use enough solution to cover the game completely. Discard the solution after soaking.

You can also marinate game to give it a savory flavor or to tenderize it. Always marinate it in the refrigerator (1 to 2 days for birds; 3 to 5 days for game animals). Boil used marinade before basting meat as it cooks or using as a sauce on the cooked meat. Discard any uncooked leftover marinade.

Cooking Methods The tenderness of a particular cut of game is similar to the corresponding cut of domestically-raised meat or poultry. All game tends to be leaner than that of domesticated animals, which have been bred for tenderness and fat marbling. Overcooking can toughen game. You can use moist heat, basting, and larding or barding (inserting slivers of fat or wrapping in bacon) to help keep the meat tender during cooking. Fast searing over high heat can also work for smaller cuts, such as tenderloin medallions or rib chops.
Safe Defrosting There are three safe ways to defrost frozen game: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. Never defrost on the counter. Whole birds or ground meat may take 1 to 2 days or longer to defrost in the refrigerator; roasts, several days. Once the raw poultry defrosts, it will be safe in the refrigerator an additional day or two before cooking. Meat and poultry thawed in the refrigerator may be safely refrozen without cooking it first.

To defrost game in cold water, do not remove store packaging. Be sure the packaging is airtight or put it in a leak-proof bag. Submerge the product in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. A whole game bird (3 to 4 pounds) or package of parts should defrost in 2 to 3 hours; larger amounts of game may take 4 to 6 hours.

When microwave-defrosting game, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the meat may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially-cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present would not have been destroyed.

Foods defrosted in the microwave or by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.

Partial Cooking Never brown or partially cook game to refrigerate and finish cooking later because any bacteria present would not have been destroyed. It is safe to partially pre-cook or microwave game immediately before transferring it to a hot grill or other cooking appliance to finish cooking.
Can Safely-Cooked Game Be Pink? Cooked muscle meats can be pink even when the meat has reached a safe internal temperature. If fresh game has reached 160 F throughout, even though it may still be pink in the center, it should be safe. The pink color can be due to the cooking method, smoking, or added ingredients such as marinades. However, for tenderness and doneness, cook whole game birds to 180 F; breast meat, 170 F. Cook ground meats and other cuts of game meat such as chops, steaks, and roasts to 160 F to ensure destruction of foodborne bacteria and parasites.

APPROXIMATE GAME COOKING TIMES

For tenderness and doneness, USDA recommends cooking whole game birds to 180 F as measured in the thigh using a food thermometer. Cook breast meat to 170 F. Ground meats and other cuts of game meat should reach 160 F. Approximate cooking times for use in meal planning are given on the chart below.

TYPE OF GAME

ROAST

GRILL/FRY
Direct heat

SMOKE
Indirect heat*

BRAISE/STEW
In liquid; covered

GAME BIRDS:
Whole bird, 4 to 6 lbs.
(Do not stuff.)

350 F
30 to 35 min./lb.

Not preferred

2 1/2 hours

Not preferred

Breast or parts

350 F
1 to 1 1/4 hrs.

20 to 40 min.

2 hours

60 to 75 min.

Whole small birds

350 F
45 min.

30 min.

1 to 1 1/2 hrs.

45 to 60 min.

GAME ANIMALS:
Rib Roast, bone in
   4 to 6 lbs.

Rib Roast, boneless rolled
   4 to 6 lbs.

325 F
27 to 30 min./lb.

32 to 38 min./lb.

Not recommended

Not recommended

Not recommended

Chuck Roast, Brisket
    3 to 4 lbs.

Not
recommended

Not recommended

Several hours

325
2 to 3 hours

Round or Rump Roast
   2 1/2 to 4 lbs.

325 F
35 to 40 min./lb.

18 to 25 min./lb.

2 1/2 to 3 hours

325
2 to 3 hours

Whole leg (boar, deer)
   6 to 8 lbs.

375 F
2 hours

Not recommended

3 to 4 hours

Not recommended

Tenderloin
   whole, 4 to 6 lbs.
   half, 2 to 3 lbs.

425 F
45 to 60 min. total


12 to 15 min./side
10 to 12 min./side

Not recommended

Not recommended

Steaks, 3/4" thick

Not recommended

6 to 7 min./side

Not recommended

Not recommended

Ground meat patties

Not recommended

6 to 8 min./side

Not recommended

Not applicable

Meat loaf, 1 to 2 lbs.

350 F
60 to 90 min.

Not recommended

Not recommended

Not applicable

Stew or Shank Cross Cuts
   1 to 1 1/2" thick

Not recommended

Not recommended

Not recommended

Cover with liquid; simmer 2 to 3 hours

Ribs, 4"

375 F
20 min.

8 to 10 min./side

Not recommended

Parboil 1 hour; then grill or roast

HOME STORAGE OF GAME

PRODUCT

REFRIGERATOR
40 F

FREEZER
0 F

Fresh game birds

1 to 2 days

6 months

Fresh game animal meat

3 to 5 days

6 to 9 months

Fresh organ meat
(liver, heart, kidney, or tongue)

1 to 2 days

6 months

Cooked game; soups, stews, or casseroles containing them

3 to 4 days

2 to 3 months

Leftover takeout or restaurant food

3 to 4 days

2 to 3 months

Smoked game, Vacuum-sealed

After opening

2 weeks
(or 1 week after "Use-By" date)

7 days

1 to 2 months

1 to 2 months

Canned game products
(pat, soup, stew, etc.)

Before opening, 2 to 5 years in pantry.

3 to 4 days after opening

2 to 3 months after opening

For additional food safety information about meat, poultry, or eggs, call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1 (800) 535-4555; Washington, DC area, (202) 720-3333; TTY: 1 (800) 256-7072. It is staffed by home economists, registered dietitians, and food technologists weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time, year round. An extensive selection of food safety recordings can be heard 24 hours a day using a touch-tone phone.

The media may call Diane Van, Acting Manager, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, at (202) 720-5604.

Information is also available from the FSIS Web site: www.fsis.usda.gov

 

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