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.”

Doctor’s Findings Cause Alert

There’s somewhat of a panic surrounding donated venison.  A doctor from North Dakota screamed “lead-tainted venison” and states including, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, pulled the donated meat from their food shelves or at the very least stopped distribution of it while it could be tested for lead contamination.  The doctor’s findings were published in an article written by Associated Press Writer James Macpherson in the Bemidji Pioneer on March 30th:

“It’s alarmist and not supported by any science,” said Lawrence Keane, a vice president and lawyer for the Newton, Conn.-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry. “High quality protein is now taken out of the mouths of needy, hungry people.”

In this same article the doctor,  Dr. William Cornatzer, of Bismarck, North Dakota says that:

Hunters have alternatives to lead, he said. “I’m a big hunter. I’ve already purchased four boxes of copper bullets for next year,”

But wait, we’ll get back to that….

The good doctor Cornatzer, a 53 year-old dermatologist and professor at the University of North Dakota medical school in Grand Forks, claims he has been a big-game hunter since he was 13 and claims he has hunted deer, elk, antelope, caribou and musk-ox all over the world. 

The article also states that the good doctor alerted health officials after he conducted his own tests on venison using a CT scanner and found lead in 60 percent of 100 samples.  The North Dakota Health Department did confirm the results on at least five samples of venison destined for food pantries — (But five samples out of how many total and what was the level of contamination of those samples?) — and prompted the most extreme reaction to this outcry when health officials last Wednesday told food pantries in the state to throw out donated venison, saying it may have lead fragments.  The good doctor said further that he now not only lamented the feeding of venison to his own children and has since discarded his venison, but claimed that this is a nationwide concern.

This of course created a domino effect and Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa followed by asking food shelves to stop the distribution until further notice.  In the meantime, state officials have decided to test donated venison samples.  This is the proper thing to do before hasty decisions are made about throwing out a much needed prime protein source for the state and region’s food shelves.  Also, there are some serious concerns with the good doctor’s motives and methods by hunters and conservation groups, such as Safari Club International (SCI) which Sportsmen Against Hunger program donated 317,000 pounds of venison to the needy last year.  The following is an excerpt from a March 28th article by Doug Smith, outdoors writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Cornatzer said he became concerned after hearing about possible lead fragments through his membership in the Peregrine Fund of Boise, Idaho, a group that promotes the conservation of birds of prey, including peregrine falcons and California condors.

The organization says lead from bullets in the carcasses of animals is primarily responsible for lead poisoning that has endangered the condors. (In July, California will ban the use of all lead ammunition by hunters in the condor’s range.)

A lead bullet shot from a high-powered rifle “fragments into hundreds of tiny pieces,” said Rick Watson, vice president and director of international programs for the Peregrine Fund. “Usually a hunter cuts away damaged meat, but the lead sprays through a large part of the animal,” he said.

One question is where is Mr. Watson and the good doctor shooting these animals when they harvest them — by that I mean are they taking a quality kill shot or are they just spraying and praying?  Then there is the question of expansion and/or fragmentation of a bullet or slug. 

One well placed shot to the vitals is the only shot a hunter should ever need to take when harvesting an animal.  It is the most ethical kill shot for both game and hunter alike.  As a big game hunter myself, and an ethical one at that, I can conservatively claim that 95% of the countless big game animals I have harvested over the years have fallen to one shot.  I could not make this claim without preparation time spent prior to entering the field and without taking only high-percentage, quality kill shots.  A hunter, butcher, or state food shelf certified game processor would not need to worry about cutting away damaged meat if the shooter is a responsible hunter.  Now, realizing that not every hunter may strictly adhere to this code, if the result of the good doctor’s wailing is that donated meat gets tested and is held to higher standards by the hunter and the processor before it makes it to the food shelf – well then something positive was accomplished.

And remember the good doctor’s exaltation in his recent purchase of four spanking new boxes of copper bullets.  Well, he might be a little disheartened to find the inferior expansion properties of a copper bullet compared to a lead bullet.  Expansion means dispersal of greater amounts of energy and the higher likelihood of an ethical kill shot.  There is a reason why full-metal-jacketed bullets are not legal for big game in Minnesota — they do not expand fast enough, if at all, to deliver acceptable damage to an animal.  By acceptable damage, I mean enough damage to put the animal down in an extremely short time, if not immediately, in order to provide an ethically clean kill and harvest of that animal.  As far as fragmentation is concerned, I, personally, have only ever found one bullet to fragment on me in all my years of experience.  That bullet was a .50 caliber muzzleloader slug which fragmented on a boiler room shot on an average Minnesota black bear.  But according to the good doctor:

Deer killed with shotgun slugs or muzzleloader slugs shouldn’t pose a problem because those slugs don’t fragment, he said.

This should not have happened, and I went back to do more research and the practice range to find a better alternative.  My point being — fragmentation should never happen to any big game bullet, this is inferiority, unethical and unacceptable — for the ammunition manufacturer and the hunter.  If hunters are finding fragmentation of their bullets, it is up to the hunter, as likewise it is up to the hunter in placement of the shot, to find a better quality alternative.  But to eliminate the superior quality of the lead bullet from the hunter’s choices is the wrong method of action.  And, one more thing, should the good doctor’s action of throwing away his own venison (the venison he tested was not his, it was samples of the donated venison) be considered an issue of wanton waste — which, in Minnesota anyway, is a crime.

The Minnesota Hunter Harvested Venison Donation Program is operated by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the Minnesota Dpeartment of Natural Resources (DNR).  The MDA issued the following press release on March 28th:

ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) has announced it will test venison donated through the state’s voluntary venison donation program to determine whether it contains low levels of lead. Meanwhile, MDA is advising Minnesota food shelves that accepted venison through the program to withhold distribution of the meat until testing is complete.

While officials are not aware of any reports of lead in Minnesota venison, the state is taking the action as a precaution. North Dakota took similar action this week after tests in that state found small amounts of lead in ground venison.

“Minnesota sets a very high standard for food safety,” Commissioner Gene Hugoson said. “While we are not aware of complaints or reports of illness tied to lead in Minnesota venison, we are erring on the side of caution.”

“People are exposed to very low levels of lead and other heavy metals in a number of ways in daily life,” said Daniel Symonik, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Health lead poisoning prevention program. “The question we need to investigate is whether the venison contains lead, and if it does, whether it’s at a level that requires intervention.”

MDA will collect samples of the venison from the food shelves to conduct laboratory testing. Until the results of those tests are known, MDA has asked food shelves to not distribute the ground venison remaining in their possession.

The Minnesota Hunter Harvested Venison Donation Program is operated by MDA in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and state food shelves. Through the program, deer hunters can donate harvested deer. The program requires that all donated deer be processed by licensed and inspected meat processors. The program has distributed nearly 78,000 pounds of venison to 97 food shelves across Minnesota.

That’s 78,000 pounds of donated meat that has been put into question, while Wisconsin’s more established donation program accepted 414,000 pounds of venison last year and has now been brought into question as well.  At the time of the good doctor’s findings North Dakota food shelves were told to throw out any undistributed donated venison.  That equalled around 5,000 pounds that remained from a season total of 17,000 pounds, but North Dakota food shelf surveys have shown a need for 70,000 pounds of donated venison.  However, Iowa has supplied some good news after that state was the first of the dominoes to return its test results:

Food pantries in Iowa have been given the OK to resume serving ground venison after tests showed just trace amounts of lead in two of 10 samples. Eight of the samples had no detectable amounts.

“When we look at the results of this testing and the blood data that has been collected over the years, the venison … presents no recognized risk for lead exposure,” said Ken Sharp, director of the environmental health division of the Iowa Department of Public Health.

I am eagerly awaiting to see the Minnesota and Wisconsin testing results.  In the meantime, I had to seriously question the good doctor’s methods of taking a much needed food source away from families in need  in order to further his own agenda.