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How to Tell If Venison Has Gone Bad

So you suspect that the venison in your kitchen is spoiled? Don’t try it. Instead, look for these unmissable signs.

To tell if venison has gone bad, apply common sense and trust your senses.

If deer or elk meat smells like sewage or rot, feels sticky and slimy to the touch, or looks gray and with a metallic sheen to it, don’t eat it. It has most likely spoiled and may no longer be safe to eat.

Contrary to what many home cooks think, the bacteria that make meat spoil are generally harmless. It’s the disease-causing bacteria that grow alongside them, like E. coli, that are dangerous to us humans.

The thing about bacteria that make us sick is that we can’t see, smell, or touch them. We can reasonably assume, however, that meat overgrown with spoilage bacteria is also overgrown with pathogenic bacteria—the type that causes food poisoning—and so it shouldn’t be eaten.

How to Tell If Venison Has Spoiled

Smell It

The biggest giveaway of venison gone bad is its smell. Venison should smell rich, gamey, and lightly bloody when fresh.

When venison begins to spoil, it gives off a disturbing, sewage-like odor. In the final stages of decay, the meat smells so foul and nasty that it makes you sick to the stomach.

Touch It

Another telltale sign of venison spoilage is its texture. Venison meat should feel damp, slick, and clean to the touch when fresh, almost as if touching the inside of the palm of your hand.

When venison is spoiled, it gets wet, sticky, and slimy because of the ooze secreted by spoilage bacteria that grow on its surface.

Look Over It

The appearance of deer and elk meat can also tell a lot about its freshness. Fresh venison has a dark ruby color and looks vibrant and firm.

Spoiled venison appears discolored; the flesh is dull, grayish, and has an unusual metallic sheen. The piece of meat is no longer firm and sturdy, but slightly caved in and has difficulty holding its shape.

How to Store Venison Properly

During slaughter, harmful bacteria that cause food poisoning, called pathogens or pathogenic bacteria, are introduced to the meat of the animal. From this moment on, how you store the meat and how long you keep it is crucial for its safety.

Left out:

Deer and elk meat, whether raw or cooked, should never be left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours (1 hour if the outside temperature is 90°F/32°C and above). Otherwise, disease-causing bacteria can grow to dangerous levels inside it, making it unsafe for human consumption.

In the fridge:

Refrigerating meat slows down the growth of the bacteria that sicken us, but it doesn’t completely stop it. Refrigerate raw and cooked venison on the lowest shelf of your fridge, where it is coldest, for no longer than 3-4 days.

In the freezer:

Freezing venison makes it safe to eat almost indefinitely because the temperature of the freezer (0°F/-18°C) puts the bacteria in a state of pause. But, as with all other meat, frozen venison will eventually dry out, lose its aroma and flavor, and suffer from freezer burn, so use it up within 6 to 9 months.

Memorize this rule:

The rule of thumb is that venison keeps 1-2 hours at room temperature and 3-4 days in the fridge. Throw the venison away if you have kept it longer; the bacteria that cause food poisoning cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted; improperly stored deer or elk meat can cause food poisoning even if it appears perfectly fine.

Never freeze venison if you’ve stored it longer than these recommended times. Freezing does not kill pathogens and does not make improperly stored meat any safer for consumption.

Can You Eat Spoiled Venison?

Don’t eat spoiled deer or elk meat. It may contain harmful bacteria that can make you sick. Venison in particular is known to carry E. coli.

Heating the meat or cooking with it doesn’t make it safer. While it does kill the bacteria in the meat (if exposed to high enough heat for a long enough period of time), it doesn’t remove the toxins they left in the meat.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million Americans contract food poisoning every year, 128,000 get hospitalized, and 3,000 die. As much as you love venison and hate food waste, the risk to you and your family for a piece of meat is just not worth it.

Up next: Can Cooked Venison Be Pink in the Middle?

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Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.