McKean Minute: Butchering Woes in the Age of CWD

When it comes to how I sleep (on my left side), how I drink my coffee (black and strong as crankcase oil), and how I carry a pocketknife (left front pocket), I’m a creature of habit. Same with how I butcher my family’s meat. The species may vary by the season or the mix of tags in my household, but it’s invariably wild—antelope, elk, goose, walleye, swan.

What doesn’t change is my process, honed over years of habit-forming butchery.

When it comes to big game, I hang either quarters or the whole carcass for a couple of days on the front-loader forks of my tractor, then I skin it and immediately begin boning out the meat. I have favorite cuts that are as familiar to me as the hills outside my house—rump roasts, shoulder roasts, blade steaks, eye of round, backstraps, shanks, neck roasts. I trim out most of the whole-muscle cuts, then wrap them in plastic wrap, then in freezer paper, and then into ziplock freezer bags. This 3-layer protection keeps my meat fresh and freezer-burn-free for up to 3 years.

This is a hunting pic.

Much of my trim goes into a large bowl, and when I have enough—usually a single elk or two good-sized deer—I make sausage, grinding the venison with pork fat I get from the local butcher. We eat a lot of spaghetti and lasagna, so I season about half my sausage with a mix of Italian herbs. The other half gets turned into a mix of breakfast sausage, spicy Cajun sausage, and straight-ahead burger.

One thing I never do is pre-freeze my sausage meat. The freezing-and-thawing process shortens its storage life and degrades its flavor.

Why am I telling you all this? Because my meat-keeping habit is crashing up against an obstacle: chronic wasting disease testing.

CWD arrived in Montana last year, detected in a corner of the state where biologists were on the lookout for the disease. The surveillance effort has shifted to my corner of the state this year, and I’m hoping to help Fish, Wildlife & Parks with their CWD monitoring by submitting heads of every deer I kill. Here’s where things get messy for a home butcher. Results from CWD tests can take a couple of weeks to be reported to hunters. I can’t wait two weeks to butcher meat, and because it’s not recommended that humans eat CWD-infected venison, I need to find a way to mark preserve my deer meat until I learn that it’s either free of CWD, or is infected. My best guess is that I’ll freeze whole, boned-out quarters until I learn whether it’s diseased or not.

If it’s infected, I will throw the meat away in a sanitary landfill; authorities note that there’s no evidence the disease can be passed to humans, but they also recommend throwing out infected meat. If it’s not infected, I’ll thaw it out and go through my traditional butchering steps. But this means thawing out my trim to make sausage, which I’ll then refreeze. As a habitual person with long-held culinary biases, this makes me deeply uneasy.

I’m being only a little facetious. I’ll get over this, and I’ll find another method to make into a habit. It’s what we hunters do, make accommodations, especially with an issue as important as CWD.

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4 thoughts on “McKean Minute: Butchering Woes in the Age of CWD”

  1. I typically will quarter my meat and keep it for 7-10 days in a controlled temperature environment such as a walk in cooler or empty refrigerator. I find this aging of the meat makes it more flavor-able and easier to butcher.
    I’m assuming you could probably leave it in a little longer if you need to without spoiling. I try to maintain the temp of 34-39 degrees.
    Good luck!

  2. Mark my words, this “unknown” about CWD and human consumption is going to spark a massive, well-funded venison-scare campaign by the anti’s. I hear nobody talking about this or thinking about it, but I predict it’s going to be a disaster. Imagine 1 or 2 million hunting widows seeing billboards, hearing radio ads, seeing TV ads, all with a simple and chilling message of “Is your deer meat safe for your family?” The impact of losing a big crop of our weekend-warrior deer hunters will be detrimental to a fatal degree.

  3. I bow hunt all over North America for big game except whitetails which I bow hunt in 5 contiguous states. Some of these state have CWD areas and I avoid hunting those areas. My home state has a new policy that states no one can bring a head nor the spine nor the rib cage of any animal into the state. So now I’m using the gutless method of quartering any animals from outside my home state. I’m not that good at the gutless method but over time I will get better and will be as automatic as gutting and dragging the entire animal to the truck. It seems change is always on the horizon we have to adjust and go with the flow.

  4. CWD does seem like an interesting problem – I think the solution is likely to keep the meat stored in a bacteria free temperature and environment until the tests are returned. Unfortunate, but best for the safety of those eating the meat and for disposal reasons.

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