Roadkill: It's what's for dinner

 

Last week, the governor of Montana signed a bill making it legal to salvage and eat wild animals that had been hit and killed by cars – in short, allowing humans to scavenge edible roadkill. The law applies to deer, elk, antelope and moose, and aligns the state with other states such as Alaska, Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, Florida and West Virginia in condoning the consumption of vehicle-tenderized meat.

With deer populations at all-time highs in many regions and car-deer collisions skyrocketing as well, it's possible that other states will pass roadkill bills of their own.

Harvesting roadkill makes a lot of sense. Wild game is some of the healthiest meat there is, and it's a shame to let it rot by the roadside. Eating roadkill could save families money they would otherwise have spent buying meat, which might be one of the reasons that the beef industry lobbied against the bill, citing food-safety concerns.

In addition to feeding people, roadkill salvage would protect the lives of the eagles, ravens, coyotes and other scavengers that typically feast on roadside carcass, and are sometimes also killed in the process. And the bill stands to save taxpayer dollars, as every animal removed for somebody’s freezer is one less carcass for road crews to pick up and take to a dump.

While the beef industry's food-safety concerns may be motivated by the bottom line, there are, in fact, health issues to consider. Additionally, there are ethical issues to contend with, such as the possibility that some idiot might intentionally hit an animal to harvest meat or collect antlers.

The way the law is written, a law-enforcement official must issue a permit to would-be roadkill eaters before a carcass can be legally removed from the scene. The Montana law also specifies that the collision must be accidental.

As far as the condition of the meat goes, the deer you hit yourself is more likely to be salvageable. Eating a carcass you accidentally happen upon raises many unanswerable questions, the most important being: Exactly when and how did the animal die?

If you can’t answer those questions, that automatically weakens your ability to evaluate whether the meat is still worth harvesting. This is especially true in warmer seasons and warmer regions, which is why it was somewhat surprising to learn that Florida allows the harvesting of roadkill.

As a hunter, I want my meat to be safe as well as perfect, and there’s a sequence of steps that must be completed correctly to ensure top quality. Whether the meat is acquired by deliberate hunting or an accidental car crash, the forces that create bad flavor and spoilage are virtually identical.

Despite my earlier joking about vehicle-tenderized meat, the part of the animal that takes the brunt of the collision is likely to be ruined. Spoilage and bad flavor can spread throughout the body from the point of contact, especially in hot weather. But heat spoilage can happen even in mild weather, because a dead animal takes a long time to cool down. A hunter always opens the body cavity as soon as possible to let body heat escape, and the same should be true when you’re processing roadkill.

Until you open it up, you have no idea what it looks like inside. It could be a total mess, with exploded guts and traumatized meat. Maybe the motorist that hit the deer managed to just run over the deer's head, but it's likely there will still be some damaged meat. If the funk has not spread, you can probably cut away the bruised part. If you are too late, a trained nose will tell you that as soon as you open up the animal.

Montana State Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, used a similar gauge to express his skepticism for the roadkill bill. "Despite its good intention, it doesn't pass the smell test for me," he told the Associated Press. Yet another Democrat, State Sen. Larry Jent of Bozeman, had fewer qualms, saying, “It really is a sin to waste good meat.”

Safety concerns may have truly motivated opposition to the roadkill bill, yet it's the meat itself that needs to pass the smell test. And rather than insisting that people drive by good meat so that they can purchase packaged pink slime at the store, we need to educate them so they can safely gauge the quality of the meat they pick up, wherever they find it. It's not a new idea, but it is one whose time has come.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about food and food politics from New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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