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Landers: Unwanted parasites don’t have to ruin a meal

The condition called sarcocystosis, also known as rice breast, involves a rice-size parasite that causes the infection in a variety of wild and domestic animals. When reported in North America, it’s most common in waterfowl, especially dabbling ducks. (Courtesy)
The condition called sarcocystosis, also known as rice breast, involves a rice-size parasite that causes the infection in a variety of wild and domestic animals. When reported in North America, it’s most common in waterfowl, especially dabbling ducks. (Courtesy)

Duck breast on rice is a popular winter meal in the home of many waterfowlers.

But “rice breast” is less appetizing.

Even the pristine trout in Lake Roosevelt can have little boogers in their meat that deserve your awareness – and careful attention to cooking temperature.

Local hunter Jay Janecek said he got the creeps as he peeled back the skin to begin filleting the breast meat from a mallard he’d shot on the Pend Oreille River.

“The meat was full of wiggling parasites the size of small grains of rice,” he said.

“I come from a hunting family and go out a lot,” he said, noting that he’d bagged waterfowl for years before he came across this parasite. “It’s nasty.”

The condition is called sarcocystosis, also known as rice breast. The parasite that causes the infection can be found in a variety of wild and domestic animals, but in North America it’s most commonly reported in waterfowl, especially dabbling ducks.

“We don’t have a good estimate of prevalence in Washington, but I would say it’s relatively uncommon here compared to some other areas of the Pacific Flyway, such as Great Salt Lake,” said Don Kraege, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife waterfowl manager.

“I get a few calls a year and have taken a couple of ducks myself over the years that have had ‘sarco.’

No method of controlling the sarcocystis parasite has been found and scientists have little evidence the health of the bird is affected by the infection, he said.

Human health websites indicate sarcocystosis presents little health hazard to humans as long as the parasite is destroyed by cooking to 160 degrees.

Most hunters wouldn’t risk feeding parasitized meat to their families, but cooking meat well is a good idea since parasites can be in an animal’s muscle before they’re apparent to the human eye.

“I have seen it only twice,” said ardent waterfowler Kent Contreras, who regularly hunts the Pend Oreille River and other waters. “The parasites can be cooked out but most folks are so disgusted they just throw the bird away.”

Wasting game meat is a violation according to the “letter of the law” in Washington hunting regulations. But Kraege said he hasn’t heard of a hunter being cited for discarding an infected bird.

Health officials warn that infected fowl should be disposed out of reach of scavenging pets or wildlife.

Fish are infested occasionally, too.

While fishing Lake Roosevelt out of Spring Canyon in mid-August 2011, local angler C.M. Nealey and his fishing companions caught 11 rainbows 10-14 inches long.

“All fish had sores on their bodies that were anywhere from a round dark area the size of a pea to open sores up to 3/4 of an inch,” he said in an email. “The larger of these sores seemed to be through the scales and into the flesh with blood around the edges. These fish looked sound except for the sores, but seemed to pay out rather quickly.”

The surface water temperature ranged 68-73 degrees, but most of the fish were caught at about 55 feet, he said.

The three anglers, with a combined 150 years of fishing experience, had never seen this condition, so they were understandably concerned.

“We also caught three silvers at the same depth and all were in perfect condition with no sores or any anomalies,” Nealey noted.

Chris Donley, WDFW inland lakes manager, suggested the fish were infected with parasites promoted by elevated water temperatures.

“We see a number of different parasitic copepods and yellow grub that affect fishes in Lake Roosevelt every year,” he said.

“Rainbow and kokanee inhabit different areas of the water column and have different foraging strategies that likely explain why the kokanee don’t have the same parasite load.”

The agency has a pamphlet, “Common Parasites and Diseases in Washington Fish,” which will pretty much cure an angler of temptations to celebrate with a slice of fresh, raw, sport-caught fish.

Cook fish for consumption until all translucent parts of the meat have turned solid color or white and all parts of the meat flake easily with a fork, WDFW suggests.

Smoking fish does not remove the threat of parasites unless the fish is then cooked to temperatures above 140 degrees. To kill bacteria, the fish meat must reach 180 degrees.

To render fish safe to serve raw in preparations such as sashimi, sushi or ceviche, health experts say even high-quality flesh still must be frozen – at temperatures colder than possible in home freezers – to eliminate the potential for ingesting nasty little creatures that aren’t on the menu.

Don’t let anyone call you a sissy for turning down raw fish or meat.

See photos and more information about rice breast and fish parasites at Rich Landers’ Outdoors Blog.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email

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