CIRCLE PINES, Minn. — A prominent Twin Cities meat processor is under investigation, suspected of illegally selling the venison from deer that hunters have killed.
Circle Pines Sausage Haus is the target of an investigation by the Department of Natural Resources that has lasted more than a year and reached into the lives of hundreds of local hunters, according to officials and documents.
While the case doesn’t appear to involve anything resembling a statewide black market, it touches on gray areas of the law of wild game processing likely not well understood by some of the state’s nearly half a million deer hunters.
An attorney for Sausage Haus’ owner said his client never intended to break any laws and believed he had been law-abiding for the past year.
No charges have been filed against Sausage Haus or its owner, and DNR officials were reluctant to discuss details, noting the investigation is ongoing. The probe has included purchases by conservation officers posing as customers, involved interviews with more than 400 people, and featured officers seizing records and building a database of more than 3,000 Sausage Haus deer-processing transactions dating back to 2017.
“It started as a complaint that a processor was selling wild deer meat, which is illegal,” Lt. Col. Greg Salo said in an interview, adding later, “It was established there was selling of wild deer meat occurring.”
Processors can charge fees for butchering a hunter’s deer, and preparing products like sausage can cost extra. But a hunter shouldn’t be sold more meat than his deer can yield, and hunter-killed deer meat can’t be sold to walk-in customers who tagged no deer themselves.
Over the course of the past two years, the Sausage Haus did both those things, a DNR investigator alleges in court papers filed last month.
Salo said DNR officers are likely to turn the investigation over to county prosecutors for consideration of charges in the coming weeks or months. Penalties for potential crimes being investigated can rise to the level of gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Some hunters who brought their deer to Sausage Haus have found their kills under scrutiny from the DNR. Salo said the vast majority have been legal, but some citations have been issued to hunters when investigators discovered, for example, that a deer was never properly registered with the agency.
'Not for sale'
At its core, the investigation is about the fact that meat from wild animals can’t be sold in America.
That’s been the law since around 1900, when hunters seeking profit from their quarry had ravaged wildlife populations to the point where some waterfowl were near extinction. A series of laws, capstoned by the federal Lacey Act, strictly prohibited the selling of the meat from wild fish or game. Wild game can be given as a gift, donated to programs for the hungry and served at charitable functions under some circumstances. But not sold.
Key distinction: Deer meat is served at retail operations and served at restaurants, but those deer were born and raised on captive farms, which are federally regulated like cattle and pork operations. Wild game processing is essentially unregulated — a private transaction between the hunter and the processor.
Wild deer products are stamped with the words “NOT FOR SALE.”
How it works
In Minnesota and across America’s deer hunting landscape, many hunters who successfully shoot a whitetail don’t butcher the animals themselves. And many who do still find themselves with piles of “trimmings” — extra scraps of the high-protein meat that begs to be cured as jerky or ground and processed into summer sausages, snack sticks, breakfast links or the like.
Enter the local meat processor, who offers these services. No figures were readily available for what proportion of the roughly 150,000 to 200,000 deer killed annually in Minnesota are brought to processors. Circle Pines Sausage Haus receives about 2,500 wild venison processing orders each fall, said John Price, attorney for Sausage Haus owner Matt Sand. Sand was described in court papers as a “main suspect” in the investigation.
Many processors, including Sausage Haus, accept whole deer, charging a fee — $110 in this case. The large cuts of meat — tenderloins, steaks, chops and roasts — are returned to the hunter at no extra charge. They charge extra for sausages and other meats, but those prices are supposed to cover the labor of the work and the costs of seasonings, fat and pork or beef that are usually mixed in with the lean venison, Salo said.
Some ballpark rules of thumb: An adult deer might yield between 50 and 70 pounds of raw meat; a pound of deer meat will roughly yield two pounds of sausage.
Sausage Haus processes commercial meat for many Von Hanson meat markets in the metro. It doesn’t appear any Von Hanson locations are implicated in the DNR investigation. A Von Hanson official declined to comment Wednesday.
The 'gray area'
Some processors promise hunters that the only deer meat they’ll get back will be from the deer they killed and brought in.
But others, including Sausage Haus, don’t make that pledge. Customers are told that the large cuts will be from their deer, but trimmings from many hunters get mixed together in the sausage-making.
“You get into a gray area there,” Salo said. But he clarified that the mixing of meat from different hunters isn’t the focus of their enforcement. “What we don’t like is to see someone with 20 pounds of trim buy 300 pounds of sausage.” At that point, they’re illegally selling wild game meat, he said.
According to a search warrant application filed by DNR Conservation Officer Christopher Tetrault, two investigators were able to leverage 12 pounds of venison trimmings into 130 pounds of sausage, with Sand himself at one point offering “If you want more, just let me know.”
Sand should have known better, Tetrault alleges in the warrant application, which was signed by an Anoka County judge.
In November 2018, DNR officer had begun building a database of Sausage Haus’ records, which included invoices with a box to check if customers wanted “extra venison sausage.” Of 103 such invoices, 96 “indicated that the customer did not bring a deer or venison meat for processing,” Tetrault alleges in the document.
Officers at the time told Sand to stop the practice of allowing anyone to order “extra” venison, the document states.
According to attorney Price, the issue was that Sausage Haus often found itself with extra venison.
“The machines they have process these in batches of 300 pounds,” Price said of Sand’s operation. “Not more, not less. He has to wait until they get enough meat to make all that, and sometimes there’s extra after it’s all mixed in with. It’s called production overrun. ... Over the years word had gotten out, and some people would come by the business. But he stopped selling extra venison to people off the street (in 2018).”
‘Learning from this’
Price said Sand, whose father used to run the business, is an upstanding business owner cooperating with investigators.
“Matt runs a Class A organization up there,” he said. “What they thought they could do is ask people (hunters bringing in deer) if they want extra. It’s illegal to do that apparently. ... If the DNR comes back and says you can’t do that, then maybe they’ll just have to increase the prices. They’re learning from this. My client certainly didn’t think anything they were doing was illegal.”
Salo said that processors with extra wild game meat have a few options: Eat the meat themselves, donate it or throw it away.
It’s unclear how widespread it is for processors to allow hunters to pay for more venison than their deer will yield.
“I have a feeling a lot of butchers are going to be reading this article and learning about this,” he said.
But Salo said the DNR and the Department of Agriculture hold workshops with processors, and processors attending seem to understand the premise of one-deer-in, one-deer’s-meat-out.
But he wasn’t so sure about the hunting public. “It’s hard to gauge that, but I think it might be an eye-opener for some folks."