How Do You Know Roadkill Is OK to Eat?

Today 28 states have laws in place making it legal to harvest roadkill for food. But when it comes to meat quality, how do you know roadkill is OK to eat?

How Do You Know Roadkill Is OK to Eat?

A year ago, Grand View Outdoors published Yes, You Can Eat Roadkill. The article has performed well. People are clearly motivated to avoid waste — a least our readers are. And in our society of relative wealth, this is encouraging.

While the original roadkill story on this website focuses on the legality of eating roadkill, this article answers how one determines if roadkill is OK to eat.

A dead animal can give a roadkill scavenger certain signs indicating the freshness of its flesh. Many of these signs can be interpreted by applying common sense. Obviously a warm body and fresh blood would suggest the meat is fresh. If an animal’s eyes are clear, it died recently. Once an animal has been dead for a substantial amount of time, the eyes become milky, an indicator that you should steer clear of consuming the meat.

In an interview with the Missoulian, avid hunter and author Steven Rinella suggested roadkill scavengers should, “grab a pinch of hair and yank on it. If it’s spoiling, the hair will come out quite easily in tufts. That’s a good way to determine freshness.”

Rinella, who recently released The MeatEater Fish and Game Cookbook, offered another surefire way to know roadkill is good to eat: “The safest bet in my mind, you would utilize animals you hit or saw someone hit. Say you’re taking the kids to drop off at school, and there’s no deer on the road, but 20 minutes later there’s a dead deer as you’re driving back. It’s a simple bit of deduction that animal’s pretty fresh.”

But if you’re not lucky enough to witness the animal’s life expire as it happens, just be sure to avoid eating any animal with a rank odor or bloated belly — and, certainly, swarming insects or circling turkey vultures suggest you should stay far, far away.

Today, you can find roadkill simmering on stovetops in kitchens across the U.S. thanks to state laws making it easier to harvest roadside animals in 28 states. Pictured: The Roadkill Cafe in Seligman along route 66 in Arizona. Photo: iStock

Cause of Death and Roadkill Quality

The cause of death is also pretty important when assessing meat quality. If you’ve ever talked to anyone who has eaten roadkill or does so periodically, you’ll find a lot of animals that die due to vehicle collisions are passed over because of the trauma associated with the animal’s death.

Here's an example of the ideal way you'd want your roadkill to die: A super healthy, hardy deer takes on a tiny Pruis with limited horsepower, suffers isolated head trauma and dies immediately.

On the other hand, if a deer gets plowed by a Hummer and takes a roll across the hood and spins off the side, it’s a nonstarter. Trauma of this nature bruises muscle tissue, making it bloodshot and inedible. However, often this is difficult to determine until after the deer is skinned.

Finally, as the Missoulian suggests, “if tire tread marks are involved, forget about it.” That's worse than a gut shot, leaving digestive juices and bacteria on the loose, mixing and mingling and destroying the animal’s meat cuts.

States Where Collecting and Eating Roadkill is Legal

Earlier this year, Oregon became the latest of 28 total states to make salvaging wildlife killed on roadways legal.  Here’s a list of states where you can legally harvest roadkill for food. Every state’s regulations are different, so check in with your local wildlife agency to get details concerning its process and requirements.

  1. Alabama
  2. Alaska
  3. Arizona
  4. Arkansas
  5. Colorado
  6. Georgia
  7. Idaho
  8. Illinois
  9. Indiana
  10. Maryland
  11. Massachusetts
  12. Michigan
  13. Montana
  14. New Hampshire
  15. New York
  16. New Jersey
  17. North Dakota
  18. North Carolina
  19. Ohio
  20. Oregon
  21. Pennsylvania
  22. South Dakota
  23. Tennessee
  24. Utah
  25. Vermont
  26. Washington
  27. West Virginia
  28. Wisconsin

States Where You’re Most Likely to Find Roadkill Deer

At just a quick glance, you can see the eastern U.S. has more deer collisions — and therefore more roadside deer carcasses — due to two obvious factors: denser deer populations and denser human populations. West Virginians top the list of U.S. states with a 1-in-43 chance of their vehicles colliding with a deer. Conversely, Californians have a 1 -in-1,117 of hitting a deer. Maybe that's why California hasn't made it legal to collect and eat roadkill — pickings are slim.

Nationwide, more than 1,900 fatal accidents have been attributed to drivers hitting animals in the road — most of them deer — over the past decade, according to the Insurance Institute for Public Safety.

According to New Jersey Real-Time News, “all animal-related claims nationwide went up 6 percent over a four-year period, the insurance data found.”

Click the image to view or download a larger version of the map. Image: Justin Lancaster

 4 Steps to Butchering a Deer and Other Resources

If aren't a hunter and have never butchered an animal, any hunter can show you how it’s done. If you don’t personally know anyone who hunts or eats roadkill, here are some resources to help:

Best Tips for Cleaning a Whitetail Deer

States Where You’re Most Likely to Find Roadkill Deer

How to Cook Raccoon: A Forgotten Delicacy

5 Weird Wild Game Meats and How to Cook Them


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