Wild and Free, But Is Roadkill Safe to Eat?
Well, I’m the king of roadkill,” laughed Paul Opel, a music instructor at Green Mountain College in Vermont. ”I don’t hunt at all but I love wild food so I’m always really happy to get it.”
Opel has been discovering this kind of road food for over 30 years. The habit began when he was in his twenties and a pheasant collided with his car.
“Here’s this completely fresh, healthy bird,” he recalls thinking at the time, “and if it stays here it’s just going to rot, and if it comes home with me it will be dinner.”
Preparing that pheasant was the first time he’d ever dressed a bird. Over time, he’s developed his own rules for taking roadkill. Winter, he thinks, is a good season because the animal is immediately refrigerated. During the summer he is warier of what he might take. Because he’s not doing it for subsistence, he’s liberal about what he rejects.
The practice of eating roadkill is part of a waste-not, want-not philosophy that drives other people, some of them previously vegans, to scavenge meat in a fashion that is almost sanctioned by PETA, which says on the subject:
“If people must eat animal carcasses, roadkill is a superior option to the neatly shrink-wrapped plastic packages of meat in the supermarket.”
People who eat roadkill might be hunters who know their way around a dead animal, or people who call themselves freegans, and are used to eating from unregulated sources, like Dumpsters. Some practitioners have written how-to guides, such as the zine quoted in Sandor Ellix Katz’s book about America’s underground food movements, “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.”
State by state rules vary on the legality of taking home roadkill. In many states, one can actually get on the local game warden’s list and wait for a call.
In Vermont, Iliana Filby got a 157-pound doe, which had been hit by a car but not killed outright. The warden phoned her and asked if she wanted the deer, and she met him at the site where he had dispatched the wounded animal. She took the carcass to deer shed, and enlisted the help of several friends to deconstruct the animal. In the end, the Vermonter got 60 to 70 pounds of meat for her freezer. An ambitious cook, she’s been learning how to butcher farmed animals, and looks forward to using her skills again. “I was on the list for this winter and I haven’t gotten one yet,” she said. ”Eventually I’ll get another one.”
All roadkill in Alaska belongs to the state. Troopers will take the hit animal to volunteers that will butcher and process the meat for distribution to charities. In New York, motorists can claim roadkilled deer, moose and bear once a uniformed officer investigates the scene and issues a tag.
Food safety issues regarding roadkill are not widely discussed in traditional food safety circles. Still, a few people were willing to speculate on possible risks in a roadkill situation.
“When you’re a hunter you control the scenario, it’s so very different than finding something and having to deal with the unknown questions,” said Deb Cherney, of Cherney Microbiological Services in Green Bay, WI.
“When you hunt it’s a stalk and kill process, and you handle the animal in a timely fashion. You harvest it and you eviscerate the animal, you process it properly and deal with it in its prime condition.”
An experienced hunter herself, she elaborated on the differences between game and roadkill. Obviously, with roadkill you don’t know if you’re harvesting a healthy animal, Cheney noted. Whether you or someone else struck the animal may be a safety consideration. For example, before you recovered the animal, what could have happened to it? Did the animal walk with open wounds, possibly picking up opportunistic pathogens?
While Cheney has never handled roadkill herself, 45,000 carcasses are annually salvaged or removed from roads because of car/deer collisions in the state of Wisconsin. Most of these accidents occur during the deer breeding season, in October and November, and the fawning season, in May and June. People claim the deer by contacting local officials to secure a tag.
Susan Vaughn Grooters, director of Research and Education
at S.T.O.P., Safe Tables Our Priority, also drew parallels between hunting and roadkill.
“The risks that exists with roadkill will be similar from a foodborne illness perspective as those from hunting wild game,” said Grooters. “So with deer as road kill, one would want to consider risks that already exist in consuming venison, meaning chronic wasting disease, toxoplasmosis gondii, and other infections. Zoonoses are species specific, so other roadkill, say squirrel or raccoon, will have disease associations unique to their species.”
Grooters also pointed to other risks. Game meat has not been raised under the care of veterinarians. Animals that go to slaughter, in many situations, have a food safety inspector on site. E. coli O157 is found in ruminants, such as moose, deer and elk. Given the nature of vehicular collisions, the chance for bacterial contamination would be a concern because of gut spillage from a ruptured bladder or torn intestines.
“If the animal has endured internal damage there can be other risks,” said Grooters. ”If an animal was hit, the force of being hit by a car can cause internal damage that being shot through the head or the heart — that killing with a gun — wouldn’t cause.”
While roadkill education courses are hard to find, hunter education courses are mandatory in every state. Safe animal handling practices, among other topics, are covered in these classes.
The Michigan Hunting and Trapping Digest, which hunters get along with their licenses, has a section on handling and processing deer and other wild game.
Each fall, the state of Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Department of Natural Resources and Environment issue a press release to remind hunters and others about food safety processing guidelines. The state has a venison-processing booklet available online and in print for people who want to process on their own. The state advises that those who want help should select a certified deer processor.
They also get other advice. Last season, hunters in Cahoun and Kalamazoo counties were warned not to eat liver from deer or elk because of a significant oil spill on the Kalamazoo River.
Similarly, hunters in Vermont are routinely advised not to eat the liver from moose or deer because of high cadmium levels.
Vermont has about 280 certified hunter education instructors and people seeking hunting licenses in Vermont go through at least a 12-hour course, said Chris Saunders, the hunter education coordinator for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. The instructors teach approximately 250 classes a year, and about 5,000 new hunters are certified annually.
Not every class gets to takes apart an animal, said Saunders, but if possible instructors try to get a roadkilled deer from the local game warden to demonstrate the proper ways to field dress game. The class manual and most state extension offices also provide information on safe handling of wild game.
Saunders said many students are young to middle adolescents, often from hunting families,
although the training program is seeing more adults because of the interest in free range meat. While they might only have an interest in hunting, perhaps a few may be interested in turning to roadkill as well.
by Amy Halloran