Raw Wild isn’t hiding the ball. At least, not exactly.
The Utah-based dog food company proudly sells “real, raw, fair-chase elk and deer meat” from wild cervids harvested by hunters in the Rocky Mountain west. Their current website is filled with images of elk and deer grazing majestically and silhouetted against a rugged, mountainous backdrop.
It’s true that wild elk and deer comprise over 99% of Raw Wild’s product (which they sell for about $10 per pound), but it’s arguably not all “meat.”
In fact, legally speaking, none of it is considered “edible.” Utah law allows for the sale of “inedible byproducts” of wild game throughout the year. This is how Raw Wild avoids breaking laws that would normally prohibit selling wild animal parts.
Raw Wild representatives who spoke with MeatEater said they’re helping reduce waste by finding a use for scraps that would otherwise end up in the landfill. “We saw the incredible amount of wasted meat generated in meat processing and looked for a way to use it,” Scott Sabey, one of Raw Wild’s co-founders, told MeatEater.
But their business model nonetheless relies on profiting from wild animals, which is generally prohibited by the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. They may not be breaking any laws, but the downstream effects of selling “inedible” wild game touch everything from processing techniques to Chronic Wasting Disease to the definition of “meat” itself.
Raw Wild was founded in 2015 by brothers Dave and Scott Sabey in Park City, Utah. Both brothers were trained as lawyers, though only Scott appears to currently practice. Their most recent filing with the Utah Department of Commerce also lists Candace Sabey, Dave’s wife, as the manager of Raw Wild, LLC.
They describe their company as a “small, hands-on family business” that gives even non-hunters the opportunity to feed their dogs wild game. Scott said he and Dave have been big game hunters “for more decades than we want to admit.”
“Raw Wild is as close as you can get to the sought-after ancestral diet because it is comprised of real prey animals, born and raised in the wild, not ‘fattened up’ or fed anything by man,” they said in a press release. “These wild elk and deer chose their own natural foods from those available to them in the Rocky Mountain wilderness.”
Feeding dogs a diet of raw meat (or other “raw” foods) has gained popularity in recent years. However, as Dr. Seth Bynum explained in a recent MeatEater article, raw dog food proponents tend to be high on enthusiasm and low on peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Raw dog food increases the risk of foodborne illnesses and lacks the nutrition of specially formulated kibble. Dogs need various nutrients to stay healthy, and they can’t get that balance from deer and elk meat alone.
While Raw Wild’s meat might not be bacteria-free (more on that below), they do add a mixture of vitamins and minerals to their burger to keep dogs healthy. They claim their product produces a wide variety of benefits, including a shiny coat, weight control, improved digestion, and healthy teeth.
We heard about Raw Wild from readers who wondered how a company in the United States could sell wild animal parts. While federal and state governments generally prohibit selling wildlife commercially, most states allow for certain exceptions such as antlers, skins, bones, head mounts, and the furs of certain fur-bearing animals.
Along with these items, Utah permits the sale of “inedible byproducts” of legally processed big game animals. Raw Wild takes full advantage of this provision. They make their dog food with “shop scrap” purchased from a game processor called Meier’s Game Processing, according to a case report obtained by MeatEater from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). Meier’s has been Raw Wild’s sole supplier since the company’s founding.
In a recorded interview with a DWR officer that took place in August of this year, owner Clay Meier explained that “shop scrap” is the meat and other byproducts that get trimmed away during processing.
“It’s not that it’s bad for the people, but nobody wants to eat dirt or hair or bloodshot or gristle or fat, whatever,” he said. Along with gristle, sinew, and dirty meat, Meier’s grinds up elk and deer bones and puts that in the Raw Wild burger as well.
Scott Sabey characterized Meier’s comment as “off the cuff,” and claimed that they’ve never received a complaint about hair or dirt in their dog food. While he admits that their product is not fit for human consumption, “there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the meat. It is just that people don’t want sinew and silverside in their burger or steaks.”
Utah law does not define “inedible byproduct,” Wyatt Bubak told MeatEater. Bubak is the Chief Officer of the Law Enforcement Section at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “We don’t define it, which is part of the challenge,” he said. “It’s currently more intuitive…common sense…the bones, sinew, ivories on elk, those kinds of things.”
Bubak believes Utah should define the term more clearly, but in the meantime, his officers must operate on this “common sense” definition. When the DWR investigated Raw Wild’s meat source, they concluded that it fell within the “inedible byproduct” category. While other game processors sell dog food in their stores, Bubak said that, as far as he knows, Raw Wild is the only company in Utah that ships their dog food out of state.
Raw Wild makes no mention of “inedible byproducts” on its website. However, in a Facebook comment, a Raw Wild representative claims the product has an “85/15% meat-to-bone ratio.” Whether the “meat” ratio hits 85% presents another question: does gristle and sinew count as “meat”?
Kevin Gillespie, MeatEater’s Director of Culinary, pointed out that while modern, affluent societies usually define meat as the lean flesh of an animal, people worldwide have historically defined the term more broadly.
“The word itself, in a more archaic form, was meant to describe food in general. In more modern terms, I’d say that it is used to describe the flesh and associated fat and connective tissues that go along with it,” he said. “Gristle, fat, and sinew are critical to the composition of animal flesh, and thus I’d say they are meat.”
Gillespie pointed out that tendons are a delicacy in many Southeastern Asian countries, and pure fat makes up one of Italy’s most prized styles of salumi, Lardo di Colonnata.
One person’s “inedible byproducts,” in other words, may be another person’s feast.
Of course, Raw Wild’s game processor grinds up more than just gristle and sinew. Meier told the DWR that he also includes lean meat in the Raw Wild burger if it’s been contaminated with blood, dirt, or hair.
Knowing this, hunters might understandably be concerned about getting their fair share of burger. While Meier guarantees that steaks and roasts are from a hunter’s animal, the burger gets mixed with other animals of the same species and distributed among hunters. Many game processors distribute burger meat in this way, though some guarantee both steaks and burger are from a hunter’s animal.
Most customers who gave Meier’s a low rating on Google Reviews complain about not getting back enough of their meat. One customer, Matt Clewley, said he brought in 140 pounds of deboned elk meat, but the butcher would only guarantee a 60-pound return because he “looked at the meat and said it had some hair on it.” It isn’t unusual for a game processor to trim off especially hairy meat, but Clewley claimed he took the meat to another processor and only lost 10 pounds.
Some customers report excellent experiences (Meier’s average rating is 3.9 out of five stars), and it isn’t uncommon for hunters to complain about not getting back enough meat. But of Meier’s 12 one-star reviews, nearly all of them express the same complaint: they were expecting more meat from their animals.
Meier declined to speak with MeatEater for this article, but Scott Sabey said that “no hunter’s game meat is at risk by this venture.”
Meier’s produces more pounds of waste than Raw Wild sells, Sabey continued, and Meier confirmed to the DWR that he throws away about 100,000 pounds of shop scrap each year. If hunters aren’t happy with their return, it’s not because Meier’s is skimming anything off the top for Raw Wild, Sabey said.
Meier charges $1.59 per pound for a basic elk cut (hanging carcass weight, after skinning), and he processes deer and antelope for a flat rate of $159. He told the DWR that he sells the burger to Raw Wild for “$2 something a pound,” which means that whatever meat he sells to Raw Wild adds to his payout for a basic cut of both elk and deer. If a hunter adds sausage to his or her order, Meier sells that for $2.89 per pound.
It’s not unusual for a commercial game processor to waste meat, but Bubak of the Utah DWR said he has bigger concerns.
“My main concern about inedible byproducts is disease transmission,” he said, referring specifically to CWD. “That’s something Utah is going to look into in the next few months and decide how we want to view these inedible byproducts and whether we want to more closely define that [term].”
Bubak’s concern is not that dogs or humans will contract CWD. As Raw Wild points out on its website, CWD has not been shown to infect species outside the cervid family. But shipping CWD-positive meat around the country still presents challenges.
It is theoretically possible, for example, for CWD prions to end up in a dog’s feces. Jim Heffelfinger of the Arizona Game and Fish Department pointed to a 2015 study that found that coyotes who had eaten CWD-positive meat could pass infectious prions via their feces. Those prions could then be present on grass, which a deer may eat.
Bryan Richards, the Emerging Disease Coordinator at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, told MeatEater that while the stomachs of cervids and canines will degrade the CWD prion burden, it’s still possible for a lovable pet to deposit the deadly disease on the landscape.
“If infectious parts go in the front, some comes out the back end,” he said.
However, he also said it’s “a little more than a stretch” that this type of transmission is a big player in interstate CWD transmission. There are far easier ways to spread CWD, and it’s unlikely much of the meat is infected to begin with.
Still, Bubak emphasized disease transmission as a main reason he wants to take another look at the “inedible byproduct” category.
“We want to regulate that further,” he said. “There will be a larger discussion as the result of information that we’ve obtained from this case.”
Much of the uncertainty surrounding this issue stems from the deceptively simple question, “What is ‘meat?’”
If Gillespie is right, and meat should be defined more broadly, Utah should perhaps rethink its quick dismissal of some products as “inedible.” Protecting wildlife from the predations of the market might mean protecting even those products some find distasteful. It’s easy to imagine, for example, another business-minded person selling “collagen-rich, 100% hunter-harvested venison bone broth” for $20 a can.
At the same time, the state can’t force hunters to enjoy sinew or accept hair or dirt on their meat. Meier’s understands that its customers have certain standards, and those standards result in a huge amount of waste. If some of that waste is used to feed dogs, the Sabeys might ask, what’s the real harm?
Bubak wants wildlife officials to take a closer look at this topic, and Utah residents will no doubt have a chance to weigh in. But whatever they decide to do, hunters have options that allow them to avoid these concerns entirely. Forming a close relationship with a game processor is a great place to start. Many are happy to explain how they process game animals, what return a hunter can expect, and whether they sell any of the byproducts.
Butchering meat at home is another solution. Waste is minimal since dirt and hair can be cleaned with a little extra care. You can turn bones into broth and organs into delicious and nutritious meals. The learning curve is steeper than field dressing an animal and dropping it off at a processor, but hunters know they’re getting every scrap of meat that’s coming to them, and none of it will be sold for profit.