Is It Safe to Eat Raw Venison?

August 15, 2023 By: Elizabeth Kligge
raw venison

Many hunters are accustomed to eating their venison rare to medium rare, but there are some adventurous eaters who like to consume their venison completely raw. Eating a piece of uncooked meat from a deer that has just been harvested is, for some, a camp tradition, a ritual used to celebrate the hunt, or an attempt to get attention on social media. Others enjoy raw venison as the main ingredient in an assortment of flavorful dishes, such as ceviche or carpaccio. Is it safe to eat raw venison?

The consumption of raw venison has been linked to a number of parasitic and bacterial infections with symptoms ranging from mild to fatal. As these case studies show, the risk of illness, though rare, is very real. 

Toxoplasmosis in Raw Venison

In 2018, a group of hunters from Quebec attended a hunting retreat in Illinois. Six of the hunters returned with fever, severe headache, and muscle and joint pain. Blood tests showed recent toxoplasmosis infection caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite for all of the symptomatic hunters. The patients reported they had consumed undercooked venison during the retreat.

In the 1980s, South Carolina wildlife biologist Joe Hamilton, who founded the Quality Deer Management Association and serves on the NDA Board, was among three wildlife biologists who consumed freshly killed venison for dinner. “The venison was cooked rare, the way we liked it,” said Joe. “Two of us ended up hospitalized for nine days with fevers peaking at 104 degrees daily. Strangely, there were no other symptoms, making it impossible for our doctors to reach an accurate diagnosis. Months later, a curious physician from the state health department looked at our blood samples and closed our case with a diagnosis: toxoplasmosis.”

According to the CDC, freezing meat for several days in sub-zero (0° F) temperatures can greatly reduce the chances of infection by the single-celled toxoplasmosis parasite. Certainly many hunters have used this method successfully, and after his bout with this parasite, Joe advocated freezing venison before consumption. A recent study, however, indicates that this may not be as effective as once thought and suggests further study to determine the temperature and duration of freezing necessary to prevent infection.

E. coli in Raw Venison

A group of Minnesota high school students killed, processed, and cooked several deer for an environmental science class. The meat was undercooked and, combined with a lack of handwashing, resulted in 29 teenagers falling ill with symptoms like abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. The venison tested positive for E. coli bacteria. Because the meat was skewered, and the center portions were undercooked, epidemiologists concluded bacteria that was present on the outside of the meat had been pushed into the undercooked center portion by the insertion of the skewer.

Minnesota high school students were sickened by E. coli bacteria when skewers pushed bacteria into the center of portions and then the meat was undercooked.

Salmonella in Raw Venison

A 65-year-old man in Honolulu became ill after participating in his family’s annual deer hunt. Following the hunt, he consumed raw venison sashimi, just as he had done many times before without incident. This time, however, he experienced diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Tests came back positive for Salmonella. Given the time between ingestion and the onset of symptoms, doctors concluded that raw venison was the most likely source of the infection. Deer are among many species that harbor Salmonella in their digestive tract, and this can lead to infection in those who process or consume raw venison.

Other Potential Risks of Raw Venison

The pathogens which cause brucellosis, listeriosis, and campylobacteriosis have all been observed in deer. In each case, basic hygiene, proper food handling, and proper cooking are the only ways to prevent infection. Note that methods such as freezing, smoking, drying, and pickling are ineffective at killing these bacteria.

But If You Insist

While proper food handling and freezing may decrease the risk of contracting a parasitic or bacterial infection, cooking to the proper internal temperature is the only surefire way to know that the venison you consume is safe to eat. 

What is the proper internal temperature? The CDC says 145° F for whole cuts or steaks (medium well) or 160° F for ground meat (well done). This of course is not what most chefs would say. For best flavor and texture, 130° F (medium rare) is commonly recommended for venison steaks. And thus we have a conundrum: food safety or flavor? There is no one right answer here for everyone. 

If you insist on delving into the chancy territory of eating raw venison or cooking to rare or medium rare, at least remember to keep your meat clean, dry, and cold. This is good practice no matter how you plan on eating your venison.

Keep Venison Clean

When cleaning and processing a deer, don’t puncture the internal organs with your knife or sever them by pulling on them. Tie off the rectum and urethra at their termination point to contain feces and urine. And handle the meat with gloves that have only touched meat. Remember that dirty gloves can transfer contaminants just as easily as dirty hands.

Food safety with venison starts with good shot placement, quick recovery, and proper care of the meat when dressing and processing the deer.

Keep Venison Dry

The only parts of your deer that need to be washed off are those parts that have been contaminated with digestive material. There is no need to hose off clean venison. When meat is exposed to moisture – even high humidity – bacterial breeding accelerates. This is why jerky, not soup, has been used for thousands of years to preserve meat for long-term storage. 

Again, drying will not kill the bacteria, but it will inhibit growth. There is an exception to the “keep it dry” rule though. An anti-bacterial mixture of 50/50 vinegar and water can be sprayed on any meat that is suspected to have been contaminated. 

Keep Venison Cold

Promptly cooling off your venison after harvest will also help to inhibit bacterial growth. Removing the viscera, propping open the body cavity, and keeping the carcass in the shade with good air flow can help speed up the cooling process. If you’re having your deer processed, deliver it to the processor as soon as possible so that it can be placed in refrigeration. And as mentioned earlier, freezing at sub-zero temperatures for several days may help to reduce the levels of Toxoplasma gondii parasites that could be present in venison.

Consuming raw venison, or raw anything for that matter, carries inherent risks. In the end, it all comes down to becoming better hunters and knowing how to handle our deer once they are down. This shows respect for the animal and for the family and friends with whom we will share our meat. No matter how many years you have been hunting, there’s probably still some room to improve your field-dressing and processing skills. Be competent and confident in your abilities, and then pass those skills on to a new hunter.

Related: How long is venison safe in warm weather?

About Elizabeth Kligge:

Elizabeth Kligge is NDA’s Field to Fork Coordinator for Pennsylvania. As a gardener, forager, angler, and hunter, she enjoys sourcing a variety of foods from the land and water around her. Elizabeth earned a bachelor's degree in visual arts from Gettysburg College and has studied and taught primitive survival skills at numerous locations around the country. She sees hunting as a way to connect people to their food and the natural world.