Venison donations may come with a side of lead

Commentary by Joan O’Brien
NH Bulletin (republished by Seacoast Online)
November 6, 2023

It’s deer hunting season, and once again the New Hampshire Food Bank is promoting its “Hunt for the Hungry” program, encouraging hunters to donate deer meat (venison) to the food bank.

It’s a feel-good program that gets a lot of positive press. What’s not mentioned in the promotion is the very real danger that donated venison could contain lead.

It’s a real possibility, one that Scott Mason, executive director of New Hampshire Fish and Game, touched on at the September New Hampshire Fish and Game Commission meeting. Describing a recent ballistics presentation, he said, “… As the bullet travels through the target it is shedding lead … now you have lead in your meat.”

Lead bullets fragment into hundreds of tiny pieces upon impact. Studies show that fragments too small to detect by sight, touch, or chewing can be present in the flesh of deer shot with lead ammunition.

Hunters are accustomed to discarding meat near the wound site, but lead fragments have been shown to travel up to 18 inches from the point of impact.

This X-ray image above shows more than 450 lead fragments spread through the neck of a deer shot with a lead rifle bullet. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

Recommendations for safe blood lead levels have been moved lower and lower over the years as researchers learn more about the effects of lead. Today we know that no amount of lead exposure is safe. “Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect learning, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement,” according to the CDC.

While the Hunt for the Hungry program may be well intentioned, venison donations could be putting a vulnerable population at risk.

Nancy Mellitt, director of development at the NH Food Bank, says the issue of lead in venison donations has never come up. “Any meat donated to the food bank is processed by a USDA butcher. … They are experts in that field,” she said.

Beyond the dinner plate, the use of lead ammunition also harms wildlife and the environment. Birds of prey, foxes, and other scavenging animals get lead poisoning from eating contaminated carcasses and “gut piles” left behind by hunters.

Eagles are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead, because their acidic stomachs quickly break down and absorb any ingested lead. A piece of lead the size of a grain of rice is enough to kill an eagle. Lead poisoning can also make animals lethargic and disoriented so that they are at greater risk of fatal accidents.

Ducks, geese, and swans are also highly susceptible to lead poisoning because they naturally consume small rocks (“grit”) to help them grind food in their gizzards. Lead fragments from spent bullets or fishing tackle are easily mistaken for suitable grit.

In 1991, the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting was banned nationwide. The impact of lead on waterfowl was recognized more than a century earlier, but federal efforts to curb the use of lead ammunition for hunting have a long history of opposition.

The potential for lead contamination in donated venison is not unique to New Hampshire. Almost all states have some sort of game meat donation program. Nationwide, hunters donate thousands of pounds of meat to the needy, yet the risk of lead exposure is largely unaddressed. Few states do more than publish best practices for minimizing lead exposure and warnings that pregnant women and small children are most at risk.

According to Martin Feehan at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, “The issue of lead is less of a concern in Massachusetts when it comes to our venison donation program, predominantly because Massachusetts doesn’t have rifle hunting.” Deer hunters in that state either hunt with a bow or use shotguns, which have a slower projectile speed, and thus the bullet, or “slug,” generally stays intact. The majority of deer hunted in Massachusetts are taken by bow hunters, Feehan said.

This author does not recommend bow hunting. While it may eliminate the dangers of lead ammunition, it can mean a long, slow death for the animal. Bow hunters deliberately wait 30 to 60 minutes, and sometimes up to 6 to 12 hours (if the shot was poorly placed), to give the animal time to die.

In states where rifle hunting is allowed, the threat of lead contamination could be eliminated if hunters used non-lead ammunition. Alternatives do exist, including bullets made from copper, and have been shown to be just as effective. (Hunters can learn about these alternatives from organizations such as the North American Non-Lead Partnership.)

New Hampshire Fish and Game could aid the transition to non-lead ammunition by offering hunters incentives to make the switch.

X-raying donated venison to check for lead has been tried in some states, and Minnesota continues the practice. It is an added expense that also highlights the waste that results from hunting with lead ammunition. In the decade before 2021, Minnesota’s lead inspectors rejected 6,700 pounds of deer meat, the equivalent of approximately 168 deer being thrown away.

Another solution to the problems caused by lead ammunition would be not to hunt. Hunting for meat may be better than purchasing the products of industrial animal agriculture, a cruel and environmentally damaging system, but not eating animals at all is even better. It’s possible to get all the nutrition we need without eating meat (a fact easily backed up by Googling “How do vegans get their protein?”).

The protein needs of the NH Food Bank could be met with plant sources, such as beans, chickpeas, nuts, and even the new plant-based meat substitutes. In addition to being healthy and lead free, many plant-based staples can be stored on the shelf almost indefinitely, making them a practical and efficient way to feed the hungry.