State tests confirm lead in some venison from food shelves

Unbelievable!  I’m flabbergasted!  I don’t know what to say!  Except for wonder how this meat, this vital source of protein for Minnesota food shelves, is being harvested and processed.  I stopped taking my harvested deer to a commercial processor many years ago for the simple facts that, by processing the harvest myself, I could personally guarantee that 1) I was getting back the same deer I harvested and only that deer;  2) I could visually inspect any possibly damaged meat knowing where the wound channels would be;  3) there would be no bone or fat left on the pure meat minimizing the gamy taste some associate with venison;  4) how it would be handled from carcass to freezer.  Yes, it takes some time to process it myself.  I am not a professional, though I have gotten pretty good over the years.  I’ve taught everyone in my hunting party, including family and friends; it has become part of the deer hunting season tradition.  And I will continue to enjoy any wild game that is in my freezer.  But the Minnesota Department of Agriculture will only accept venison for the Minnesota Hunter Harvested Venison Donation Program from certified processors, for obvious reasons.  But now, the whole program from hunter to food shelf will have to take a look at how this food source is reaching the people who need it.  Here’s the full press release from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, April 10, 2008

Michael Schommer, MDA Communications, 651-201-6629
Doug Schultz, MDH Communications, 651-201-4993
Colleen Coyne, DNR Communications, 651-259-5023

State tests confirm lead in some venison from food shelves

Food shelves directed to coordinate disposal with MDA inspectors

ST. PAUL, Minn. – State officials announced today that laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of varying amounts of lead fragments in a number of venison samples collected from Minnesota food shelves. While there have been no reports of illness associated with the venison, the state has taken the precaution of directing food shelves to destroy any remaining venison. At the same time, consumers who have venison obtained from a Minnesota food shelf are asked to throw it away.

“The venison donated through this state program is subject to the same standard set for regulated food companies,” Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson said. “One person could eat this venison and receive a high dose of lead, whereas another person might not ingest any lead at all. Since it can’t be determined with certainty who might receive meat with a high dose of lead, we need to err on the side of caution.”

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) laboratory tested 299 samples of venison donated to food shelves through Minnesota’s Hunter Harvested Venison Donation Program. The lab tests found varying levels of lead fragments in 76 of the samples. The amount of lead varied from 0.185 milligrams to 46.3 milligrams. The high level of variability among samples means that no generalizations can be made and that additional testing is needed. However, because food shelves often serve at-risk individuals such as young children and pregnant women, state officials chose to have food shelves destroy the product.

The initial venison samples came from a custom processor in Bemidji and food banks (distribution centers) in Duluth and Rochester. Since November 2007, the program distributed nearly 78,000 pounds of venison to 97 food shelves across Minnesota. As of April 8, the food shelves had roughly 12,000 pounds of product remaining.

Samples first were examined by “X-ray” radiography at a commercial food inspection company, and the MDA laboratory conducted subsequent lead analysis. The tests examined both ground venison and whole cuts. Results varied according to the type of venison (ground vs. whole-cut) and the location from which the sample was collected. MDA tests found the lead fragments were not uniformly distributed in the meat. This made it difficult to assess an “average” dose a person might consume from a single serving.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), elevated levels of lead in the bloodstream can harm both children and adults but the exact level at which health impacts occur can depend on a variety of factors. The most at-risk groups are children under 6 and pregnant women. While high-level lead poisoning can be fatal, the symptoms of low-level lead consumption may not be obvious.

“We don’t have enough information or samples to make broad conclusions yet, but based on the available data it appears there is a chance someone could get a harmful dose of lead by eating this product,” Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan said. “We support the decision to destroy the remaining product, and we will work with MDA and DNR to address any food safety concerns moving forward.”

Most adults can tolerate small amounts of lead exposure without noticeable symptoms, but pregnant women and children face potential risk from even short-term and relatively low-level exposure. MDH recommends that people contact their doctor if they have concerns about potential lead exposure.

The Minnesota Hunter Harvested Venison Donation Program is operated by MDA in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and state food shelves. The program requires that all donated deer be processed by licensed food processors.

State officials will continue to investigate the issue in the weeks ahead. Next steps for the state will include development of a comprehensive set of processing guidelines for hunters and custom processors handling venison. While no decision has been made about the future of the state venison donation program, the goal will be to determine what safeguards are needed to prevent lead contamination of donated venison. Food shelves with this product will be contacted by MDA inspectors to coordinate disposal of remaining product.

According to DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten, hunters may have questions about what to do with their own venison in light of this announcement.

“We know that more analysis needs to be done to provide some guidance to hunters,” Commissioner Holsten said. “In the meantime, the decision to eat venison is a personal choice. I can tell you that I will continue the careful processing practices that give me confidence that my venison is safe for me to eat and to serve to my family.”

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