Sarcocystis (Rice Breast) in Waterfowl & What To Do With It
I was stoked, my first banded duck, a plump drake mallard who I considered mounting but decided I’d rather eat instead. However, when I peeled back the skin to breast the bird, I was confronted with hundreds of white “things” running with the grain of the drake’s meat. It was sarcocystis or “rice breast” and it was the first time I’d seen it. Unfortunately, since that day and especially since my relocation to Wyoming I see it very often.
In fact, out of a two man limit of birds just last weekend, five mallards had it, two only slightly and three were positively riddled! What's even more interesting is that this year, sarcocystis has been showing up in both elk and deer here in Wyoming and the WYGFD has been suggesting the meat be disposed of in both big game and waterfowl even though infected meat can be eaten when cooked to the consistency of boot leather.
What is Sarcocystis or Rice Breast? Rice Breast is caused by the cyst stage of the protozoan parasite, Sarcocystis SPP. The parasite’s life cycle requires a pair of hosts. First a carnivore who ingests infected meat and whose intestines serve as a host for the parasite to mature and pass eggs through the carnivore’s feces. Second, an incubatory host for the eggs, ducks, deer, elk, etc., who consume the eggs which are then hatched and the mature parasite travels through the host’s tissues to settle in skeletal muscles, like the breasts of ducks. Finally, when the Rice Breast host dies and another carnivore consumes the meat the cycle begins again.
Sounds like something from Science Fiction but as is usually the case, real life is stranger than fiction. The questions remaining are, “Is this dangerous to humans?” and “Can I still eat the meat?” Well, that’s where things get sticky but the short answers are, No and Yes.
Sarcocystis has not proven to negatively affect carnivores (humans) as it passes through the body through the intestines. However, I for one don’t want those little suckers in my guts and so I either don’t eat infected meat or follow the recommended cooking guidelines which are cooking meat to an internal temperature of 150-160 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes and freezing to -4 degrees Fahrenheit. That means eating well done duck and while it rules out a nice medium rare grilled duck breast, making jerky, snack sticks and salami is still an option for infected meat. Ultimately, it’s your call on what to do but checking with your state’s game and fish agency for guidance is the best idea.
There are areas of the country where Rice Breast is more prevalent than others. I’d only seen it one time in the Mississippi Valley Flyway but since moving to the far western side of the Central Flyway, I see it in almost every single limit of birds I shoot. In fact, it’s rare for me to get five uninfected mallards. Last year the incidence was low for me but so far this year it’s very high and I’m no biologist but I’m betting that the protozoan is more prevalent in drought years, such as this one, as the number of diseased animals being consumed by carnivores are concentrated around what little water there is, condensing the protozoan’s range.
One thing is certain, if you haven’t seen Rice Breast, you will and hopefully now you’ll be able to understand it and have an idea of what to do with infected meat.