As Pennsylvania's rifle deer season approaches, warnings from North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin about consuming hunter-donated ground venison are making news.
According to a study released by the North Dakota Department of Public Health in March, 53 of 95 packages (56 percent) of X-ray examined ground venison donated to food banks showed metal fragments.
Consequently, the North Dakota Department of Health recommended that food pantries not distribute the remaining ground venison in their possession.
In Minnesota, Department of Agriculture tests found lead fragments in 76 of 299 samples (25 percent) of donated venison. As a result, Minnesota officials instructed food pantries to destroy the remaining donated venison to prevent high-risk people such as pregnant women and children under age 7 from consuming the meat.
And in Wisconsin, Division of Health officials found 16 percent of 183 samples of donated venison contained detectable levels of lead. The agency recommended that venison from food pantries not be eaten unless the meat was X-rayed and found free of metal fragments.
Despite these concerns, which are being widely reported in the press, no case of lead poisoning has ever been associated with the consumption of hunter-killed game in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, or elsewhere, according to the University of Georgia's Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study.
In Pennsylvania, Hunters Sharing the Harvest (HSH, www.sharedeer.org ) has been distributing venison donated by hunters to food banks, soup kitchens, and needy families since 1991.
"There has never been a problem with lead contamination in Pennsylvania venison," said spokesman John Plowman. "Though venison is exempt from USDA inspection, we approve all butchers that process venison for us, and many are USDA approved facilities."
Iris Valanti, public relations coordinator for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, said the group has had no complaints about hunter donations.
"The venison that we receive from HSH goes through registered processors," she said, "and I assume they are responsible for assuring that the meat is safe. We have had no problems reported for Pennsylvania venison."
Jerry Feaser, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said quality control of meat from hunter-harvested game is beyond the commission's purview.
"We are not a food safety agency," he said. "We rely on other agencies for advice and guidance on issues of game meat safety."
Nicole Bucher, a spokesperson for one of those agencies, Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture, said that her agency does not inspect donated venison.
The neurotoxicty of lead has been known for years. In 1991 lead shot was banned for use in waterfowl hunting nationwide because of concerns of lead poisoning in some waterfowl that consume large quantities of lead shot. But this is the first time concerns have surfaced that lead fragments in big game meat could be harmful to humans. Several research projects are under way and the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is withholding comment until the results of these studies are released.
Meanwhile, wildlife experts from seven states met in June to discuss the problem of lead fragments in big game meat. Their interim findings include:
• Lead in venison has not been linked to any illness.
• The neurotoxicity of lead depends on the level and frequency of exposure. Pregnant women and children under age 7 are at greatest risk.
• Initial tests indicate that ground venison contains more lead particles than whole muscle cuts.
• Deer hunters should use ammunition less prone to fragment, trim a generous distance around bullet wounds, and discard meat that is bruised, discolored or contains pieces of hair, dirt or bone.