Photo by Erelend Haarberg/Nat Geo Image Collection
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Close up of a male moose, Alces alces, feeding on mountain birch.
Photo by Erelend Haarberg/Nat Geo Image Collection

Want the Ultimate in Local Food? Hunt It

Long before “eat local” became a popular slogan for socially-aware Americans, it was a necessity for our ancestors, and it still is for some around the globe. But many of us have grown up far removed from the concept of shooting our own dinner.

It’s now pretty easy to get the connection between food and plate when gathering ingredients from the garden or the grocery store advertising local produce, but some people say the ultimate eat local experience is hunting your own meat and fish.

“About 80 to 90 percent of the food that I eat is what I harvested,” says Nicole McClain, an accomplished bowhunter in both the U.S. and Africa who appears on the Outdoor Channel. McClain hunts deer, bear, turkey, buffalo, and a variety of African animals like gemsbok, waterbuck, impala and kudu.

“Hunting for me is all encompassing. It’s about harvesting the animal, it’s about conservation, it’s about putting food on the table and it’s about being in the outdoors,” she says.

Vicki Cianciarulo, bowhunter and co-host of “The Choice with Ralph & Vicki,” also on the Outdoor Channel, agrees, saying that, “food is top of the list. My favorite game to hunt and eat is moose. Everything we hunt we eat. Our freezers are full and we usually end up filling the freezers of our family and friends, too.”

There appears to be a modest but growing interest in getting wild-caught fish and game onto our tables. In the U.S. in 2011, there were 13.7 million hunters and 33.1 million anglers catching food, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Compared to the 2006 survey, participation is up 3 percent.

And Filippo Segato, Secretary General for the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU (FACE), says “the link between hunting and food has been gaining momentum across the EU.” The EU counted 7 million hunters and 25 million anglers in 2014.

In Sweden, game meat represents about 15 percent of total meat consumption. Segato notes that overall public acceptance of Swedish hunters is at 87 percent–which is higher than most countries and likely because of the long-time connection between hunting and food in that country. (In the U.S., public acceptance of hunting is at a current all-time high of 79 percent, which is nearly 5 percent higher than in recent years, possibly due to the growing segment of new hunters who are in it for food, not trophies.)

But how do we know the meat is safe­–or even healthy? In Italy, there is a project underway to certify the origin and quality of game meat through a collaboration between the Department of Veterinary Sciences and Public Health of Milan (DVSPH-M), University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo and the Italian Society for Preventive Veterinary Practices:  “Wild and good: A food chain to be valued.”

According to Prof. Paolo Lanfranchi of DVSPH-M, demand for game meat is growing in Italy with about 6,800 tons of wild game meat consumed annually. Because EU legislation permits hunters to market harvested animals, the availability of game meat products, mainly as cold meats and salami, is also growing at both the restaurant and grocery store levels.

Like the U.S., Europeans still stumble over getting people to accept more than chicken, beef and pork at the table. “The general public perception of consuming game meat definitely needs to improve” says Lanfranchi, who hopes that this project will “serve as the basic education tool to help hunters gain acceptance.”

It took awhile for Tovar Cerulli, a longtime vegetarian and author of A Mindful Carnivore, to accept meat eating. He decided to take up hunting because he was seeking a stronger connection between field and plate. He decided that eating “the ultimate free-range meat” was an ethical and sustainable choice. “There is nothing inherently ecologically damaging about hunting,” he says. It can actually benefit the animals by preventing overpopulation.

Hunting also may be better for the environment than traditional methods of raising food animals. Think about it: Harvesting a single deer within its wild habitat leaves a significantly smaller ecological footprint than a cattle farm.

There may be another reason more hunters are getting into game. U.S. commercial beef production dropped 5.4 percent in 2014 and is currently at its lowest since 1994. There are no signs of herd expansion, which has pushed most retail beef prices to record highs.

In contrast, deer populations are thriving and many states reported healthy herd growth and weight gain among wild deer populations in 2014. In Italy, deer are also on the rise, so what’s for dinner may be changing for more people in the future.

Follow Kristen Schmitt on Twitter.