As many families have already hit the bush for the fall hunt season to feed their families over the winter months, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services thought that it would be timely to get some safe meat handling tips out.
According to Lilian Kandiliotis, a Regional Public Health Nutritionist/Dietician, there are a number of basic guidelines when it comes to keeping meat at its best quality for later consumption when out in the bush.
While out in the bush and handling fresh kills, gloves are a must as some animals can carry diseases such as tularemia or rabbit fever. Some bears carry trichinosis, which can be passed on to humans. All meats should be cooled quickly with ice packs or snow in the internal cavity and animals that seem visibly sick or abnormal should not be handled.
“If you come upon a sick animal, notify your game warden and the CTA,” said Kandiliotis. “They can share the information with us. They can help send the meat for testing to see what disease is affecting it, and protect our hunters, our community members.”
She said hunters should avoid lead shot, as lead is a contaminant. She also reminds hunters to wear bright clothing and safety gear, and to wear lifejackets while in boats and never to overload a boat so that it doesn’t capsize.
According to Kandiliotis, the department of Public Health always likes to encourage Crees to choose traditional food over anything else because it has so many benefits.
“The best traditional food you can get is the one you get yourself: the one you hunt, active in the bush because it keeps you in shape,” said Kandiliotis.
And, she said, the best way to prepare this meat is through the traditional methods for respectfully butchering an animal, a tradition and practice that has been taught to Crees by their families and Elders for centuries as this supports and promotes Cree culture and teachings.
With that said, getting back to gloves, it isn’t just about wearing them while handling the meat but while doing so one should avoid touching their face and mouth when gutting and butchering the animals because animals can carry diseases that can be passed on.
“To avoid cross contamination when handling meats, wipe down your knives at gutting and clean knives between gutting and butchering and also between animals. You can use rubbing alcohol to disinfect and rinse with fresh water and dry with clean cloth,” said Kandiliotis.
During the transport of a fresh kill, black garbage bags should be avoided because they have chemicals in the linings which can cause a chemical contamination of the meat. As an alternative, Kandiliotis suggested a clean tarp or food grade white or clear food storage bags.
“You can get food grade bakers’ bags from the food wholesale suppliers who do business with our communities, order through your local COOP or grocery store or hardware store. The food grade bags are recommended for the storage of meats as well. You can wrap the meat in cheesecloth for field dressing. Cheesecloth is available at your local hardware store and that can be used too,” said Kandiliotis.
When preparing these meats at home, if you are uncertain about whether your meat is cooked properly, a meat thermometer can end a guessing game. As a rule of thumb, cooked meats should be 74C (165F) or hotter.
Kandiliotis said that the traditional cooking methods of the Cree are actually well suited for food safety, as traditionally Crees have always cooked food until it is very well done and this is the best practice for killing bacteria.
“What we need to be careful about is to not let food sit at room temperature for a long time. Keep it hot till you eat it. This is especially true for feasts and community gatherings. Cooked foods should be kept above 60C and cold food between 0-4C. Frozen foods should be stored at -18C or less,” said Kandiliotis.
As a good hunt can yield a great deal of meat, when preparing it for freezer storage, Kandiliotis said that a good method is to wrap the meat in butcher paper and then in a food grade plastic bag. And, when putting it into the freezer bag, to try to squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible to maintain meat quality and avoid freezer burn.
“Some people use aluminum wrap, this keeps the air out well, but it’s a pain to get it off when it thaws out. By far, vacuum packing keeps the quality of meats fresher for longer, but it is expensive because you have to buy the machine and the bags are also expensive, but the results are superior,” said Kandiliotis.
Once the freezer reserves have been depleted, it is a good idea to clean a freezer by melting the frost and then giving it a good scrub to remove debris, blood and residue. This also helps the freezer function better, which improves food preservation. If possible this should be done once a year or more.
As for thawing, the safest method is always in the refrigerator as that is where bacteria is least likely to grow. If that isn’t possible, meat can also be thawed under cool running water in the sink if the meat is sealed. It can also be done in the microwave if the meat is to be cooked immediately. Food can also always be cooked from frozen. What is not suggested is leaving it out on the counter, as that is where bacteria can really grow.
The CBHSSJB offers training for food safety certifications for all food handlers, food service administrators, and also traditional food safety, which is a joint project with local Cree Elders and the CTA, as well as veterinarian pathologists.
For those interested, an event will be held in the spring of 2015 and, more information is available through Public Health.