Over years of processing my own deer at home, I’ve learned my way around deer anatomy and seen a lot of odd and interesting things. But in January 2022, while breaking down the hindquarter of a healthy 2½-year-old doe I killed the last week of Georgia’s deer season, I encountered something I’d never faced before. As I peeled back the thick outer rind of rump fat and sliced with a sharp knife to separate membrane from meat, I released something evil – a thick, green goo oozed from a pocket somewhere between the top and bottom round.
Red of muscle, white of bone and fat, these shades I know. I’ve even seen the sickly yellow of pus. But green of radioactive lime sherbet? Never. Not even in the gut bucket. Did this mean I must discard the entire deer?
The slime was thick but smooth. I expected a bad odor, but it had no smell I could detect, which was odd. I continued slicing and removed a capsule of tissue from a place between muscles where there shouldn’t be such a thing – an abscess, I assumed. The surrounding muscle looked and smelled normal, but I trimmed a little more of it. I finished processing that hindquarter and labeled the freezer-paper packages with a big asterisk until I could find out if this meat was safe to eat.
My first call was to Dr. Nicole Nemeth, professor and scientist at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, a unit of the University of Georgia Vet School founded in 1957 to study mysterious die-offs of deer – which is how hemorrhagic disease (EHD and bluetongue) was discovered.
“It looks like just a small, chronic, walled-off abscess,” Nicole said. “We see these very commonly in white-tailed deer, and there can just be a single one, or in some cases we find many of them throughout the body. You are probably looking at an old wound, possibly a puncture wound that introduced some bacteria, formed a small surrounding abscess which basically consists of the bacteria and a lot of inflammatory cells. This was then walled off and contained and not harming the animal at that point.”
Nicole has cultured bacteria from such abscesses to identify the guilty party, and usually it’s Trueperella pyogenes, a common inhabitant of deer skin and even your own hide. I recognized the name, because a particularly nasty strain of this same bacterium was convicted of causing fatal brain abscesses in deer, especially bucks in certain regions.
“The bacteria eventually die off when closed off in a wall like this one.”Dr. Nicole Nemeth, SCWDS
We know that sometimes amorous bucks use their antlers to try to prod an unreceptive doe into standing for breeding, resulting in occasional puncture wounds in the hindquarters. The abscess on my doe was in a likely location for such a puncture, but we can imagine other causes like thorns or even a bobcat claw. Nicole said some deer are better able than others to fight off infection from such punctures, and it can depend on the location and other factors. If the puncture gives bacteria direct access to the blood stream, infection might be widespread. In my case, the doe’s immune system was able to contain and wall-off the invaders.
Sometimes, Nicole said, bacterial cultures find no living bacteria. “The bacteria eventually die off when closed off in a wall like this one,” she said.
That would explain the lack of odor in the one I found. The doe’s body sealed off the infection, and with bacterial invaders surrounded and trapped, antibodies killed them completely. All that remained were the enzymes produced by the battle. This seemed like more evidence to me I didn’t need to worry about broader contamination of the venison, but still the marked packages remained untouched in my freezer.
Safe to Eat?
Not long after my conversation with Nicole, I happened across a TikTok video showing a butcher carving up a beef hindquarter and finding an abscess. When he squeezed it, out poured the same green slime I’d found in my venison. There might be someone in commercial food safety who knew more about these abscesses.
More digging led me to Dr. Todd Callaway. Todd earned his Ph.D. in food safety, worked 18 years for the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and is now a professor at the University of Georgia. Originally from Texas, Todd is also a deer hunter. He knew exactly what I’d witnessed. Since this one formed between muscle groups, he called it an intermuscular abscess. When they form inside a muscle, it’s an intramuscular abscess. He’s seen them in cattle, pigs, dogs and cats.
“When I worked in Texas, you’d find cattle with abscesses like this,” said Todd. “Where landowners were using long barbed wire, when cattle rubbed up against it, it would sometimes puncture them. They’d have those abscesses around their neck where they got stuck by the wire.”
Todd agreed with Nicole that the lack of odor indicated the fight against infection had already ended.
“The bacteria either died from lack of nutrients or antibody attacks,” he said. “The whole idea of walling it off is keeping the bacteria away from the rest of the body.”
I asked Todd, is it safe for me to eat this venison?
“As far as we know, yes, you’re safe,” he said. “It depends on what the organism is. Most are going to be environmental contaminants or something from their skin. If it happened to be some of the bad actors – like listeria, E coli 0157, or salmonella – it might have an active abscess and you’ll smell pus. You want to trim a little further away from that. Those are your big food safety issues.”
Salmonella and E coli are abundant in the digestive tracts of ruminants like deer, which is why it is important not to rupture the rumen or intestines when you are field-dressing and processing a deer. In a gutshot deer that is not recovered quickly, it’s these and other bacteria that lead to rapid spoilage of meat when temperatures are above 40°F.
Having talked to Nicole and Todd, I felt safe eating the venison from the hindquarter where I found the abscess. A trial run with a roast in the crockpot was successful, and I survived to write this article. Summing up what I learned, here’s how I’d suggest handling situations like mine.
Venison Safety Tips
First, this all assumes your harvested deer appears healthy overall and was behaving normally when you saw it. My doe was healthy and fat. Do not eat venison from any deer that is emaciated or looks or behaves sick on the outside.
When processing a healthy deer, if you find an encapsulated abscess like the one I found, trim it out. Avoid puncturing it, but if you do, like I did, wash it away quickly to minimize contact with meat. Trim away venison that was close to the abscess or looks suspicious.
You may find wounds or abscesses that are larger or more active than I found, with a bad smell and more meat affected. Use your judgement. If infection is not contained to a small area but appears to be widespread, be more careful. Err on the side of caution.
Finally, thoroughly cook the venison that remains after trimming to ensure any remaining bacteria are killed.
Hopefully you’ll never need this advice, but now you and I are both prepared should we encounter neon green while processing a deer.