If I kill an animal, can I eat it raw?

Image Gallery: Grilling Steak, Step-by-Step Rare, but not raw. Even in the wilderness, you should cook the meat you kill. See more steak grilling pictures.
Bjorn Wiklander/Getty Images

Stranded in the wilderness for days, your stomach audibly groans from hunger. Foraging on plants or berries isn't an option because you don't know what's safe to eat. Instead, you hunt.

Drawing on your dwindling energy, you manage to kill a rabbit. Now, the only thing that matters is getting that sustenance into your body fast. Building a fire and cooking could take more than an hour, so you contemplate eating it raw. What's the harm?

Not so fast. Sure -- in the wilderness, some normal rules of civilization don't apply. But when it comes to meat, you need heat. If you want to maximize your chance of survival, the U.S. Armed Forces Survival Guide recommends cooking all wild game and freshwater fish because of the threat of bacteria or parasites.

Bacteria thrive and multiply between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (4 and 60 degrees Celsius). That's why you should cook meat until the internal temperature measures at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit (65 degrees Celsius) to effectively break down the bacteria cells and prevent them from reproducing [source: USDA].

You're probably thinking: If that's true, then how have Eskimos and other indigenous groups survived eating raw fish meat over the years? And what about eating raw fish in dishes such as sushi?

The difference is the salt water and the temperature of the meat. Saltwater fish are safer to eat raw because the water actually helps to kill parasites and bacteria. The salt in the water creates a hypertonic solution, where a higher concentration of salute (salt) exists outside of the bacteria cells than inside those cells. To correct that imbalance, the bacteria cells release their water content through osmosis. When they lose that water, they shrivel up and die. In addition, when Eskimos eat raw whale and seal meat fresh, it hasn't had time to breed more bacteria.

Cold temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) also stop bacteria reproduction. Sushi-grade fish, called sashimi, that people commonly eat raw has been frozen before use to help destroy any remaining bacteria. In case of any lingering invaders, food safety guides do recommend heating all saltwater fish to more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius).

Are these cooking precautions merely empty threats? Next up, we'll take the microscope to the meat and see what potential dangers exist.

Eating Raw Meat: Bacteria and Parasites

Fish grilling on a spit.
Fish grilling on a spit.
Peter Cade/Getty Images

While the meat you kill in the wild may taste fresher than what you buy in the grocery store, that doesn't mean it's clean enough to eat raw. Although you sometimes cannot see it, bacteria and parasites may be hosting dinner parties of their own on that meat you just hunted down.

Carnivorous wild game, including boar, bear, wolf and fox, carry a higher likelihood of passing along trichinellosis. Trichinellosis develops when people eat animals infected with a parasite called trichinella worm. This nasty invader can leave you with weakened bowels and body for months. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports that it was a common infection before meat preparation became more standardized [source: CDC].

Raw caribou consumption also is commonly linked with the bacteria brucellosis that wreaks bodily havoc in the form of fever, fatigue and appetite loss. Other more familiar invisible bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella, can also make a home in raw meat.

In fresh water, in particular, fish may pick up parasites or bacteria, such as tapeworm. Toxins from commercial development or other human settlements can also taint the fish.

Because cooking can destroy much of the harmful bacteria, most of the meat you procure in the wild will be as safe to eat as what you might order at a restaurant. But keep in mind, if you come across a dead or sick animal, you should not consume its meat. Visible signs of abscesses, fungal growth and tumors inside or outside the animal or fish's body also mean that you should toss it.

If you can't eat raw meat in the wild, how do you cook it? You've got several options:

  • Grill: Make a rotating spit by putting two forked branches into the ground on either side of your fire. Use a thin, green branch to spear your meat. Place that branch in the middle of the fire by resting it in the forks.
  • Bake: For juicy meat, wrap it thoroughly in green leaves. Put it on the ground and pack mud on top of and around it. Then, build your fire on top of the mound and allow the heat to bake it.
  • Roast: Slice your meat into thin strips and suspend them over a fire, making sure to not burn them.

For any raw meat remnants, you should use natural refrigeration methods. If you're stuck in the Arctic, that won't be a problem since you can simply pack it in snow. In more temperate regions, you can insulate the meat and place it in a stream bed or bury it in cooler soil near a water source. Remember, except for freezing, these storage techniques are temporary (and you should beware of foraging animals).

If you want to learn more about survival in the wild, examine the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources:

  • Air, Land and Sea Application Center. "Survival, Evasion and Recovery." June 1999.
  • Alberta Health and Wellness. "Brucellosis." Public Health Notifiable Disease Management Guidelines." December 2005. (April 1, 2008).http://www.health.gov.ab.ca/professionals/ND_Brucellosis.pdf
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Trichinellosis Fact Sheet." July 15, 2004. (April 1, 2008)http://www.cdc.gov/NCIDOD/DPD/parasites/trichinosis/factsht_trichinosis.htm
  • Department of the Army. "U.S. Army Survival Handbook." 2002. Globe Pequot. (April 2, 2008).http://books.google.com/books?id=8NZzb4pLCpgC
  • Friend, Milto. "Disease Emergence and Resurgance: The Wildlife Human Connection." National Wildlife Health Center. 2006. http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/publications/disease_emergence/Chapter5.pdf
  • Gates, Stefan. "Arctic life -- your questions answered." Oct. 19, 2006. BBC. (April 1, 2008) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/6065512.stm McNabb, Christopher. "Living Off the Land." 2007. Globe Pequot. (April 1, 2008). http://books.google.com/books?id=PlTjfID8oFcC
  • Northrop-Clewes, Christine A. and Shaw, Christopher. "Parasites." British Medical Bulletin. 2000. (April 1, 2008).http://bmb.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/56/1/193