Minnesota orders food shelves to get rid of donated venison

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The state directed Minnesota food shelves Thursday to destroy any venison they have because it may contain lead, and advised consumers with food shelf venison in their freezers to throw it away.

Lab tests have confirmed widely varying amounts of lead fragments in venison samples collected from food shelves in Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture said. Minnesota ordered the testing last month after particles of lead bullets turned up in venison donated to food shelves in North Dakota.

The results raise more questions than answers about whether the venison harvested by hundreds of thousands of Minnesota hunters every year is safe to eat and what those hunters should do next fall, top Department of Natural Resources officials acknowledged.

"We’re just stepping into this," DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten said. "And it’s not just us. This is going to happen across the country."

Minnesota food shelves receive venison through the Minnesota Hunter Harvested Venison Donation Program, which is operated by the MDA and DNR with state funding. The program requires that all donated deer be processed by licensed food processors, and the meat is subject to the same safety standards as commercial food products. Since it last fall, the program had distributed nearly 78,000 pounds of venison to 97 food shelves statewide. They had roughly 12,000 pounds remaining as of Tuesday.


The announcement was a disappointment to Sue Estee, executive director of the Second Harvest North Central Food Bank in Grand Rapids, which supplies about 30 food shelves in that area. While she didn’t have figures, she said the food bank had received a significant amount of venison under the program this past season, and their clients were happy to get it.

Estee said the food shelves she supplies had been holding their remaining venison while they awaited the test results. They will probably return it to the food bank for disposal now, she said.

"It’s too bad," she said. "It was a good product. We’ll have to find another way to make this program work."

Because the lead levels in the tested samples varied so widely, officials said there was no way to make generalizations about the potential danger. But since food shelves provide venison to people considered at the most risk for lead exposure, such as children under age 6 and pregnant women, state officials decided it was best to destroy the remaining venison.

"One person could eat this venison and receive a high dose of lead, whereas another person might not ingest any lead at all," Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson said in a statement. "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."

Health Commissioner Sanne Magnan endorsed the decision.

"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," she said in the same statement.

Holsten said it’s not clear if the risk of lead exposure from eating game has always been there, because ammunition technology has changed dramatically over the decades.


The commissioner said the DNR will be working over the spring and summer months to put together detailed information for hunters on how they ought to process their deer to minimize the risk. He said lead-free ammunition is available, but the DNR isn’t ready to make any recommendations about that or about using rifle bullets versus shotgun slugs or muzzleloaders.

"There’s going to be a lot of research and discussion that’s going to need to be done very fast so we can provide guidance, and we’ll definitely do that," Holsten said.

Dave Schad, director of the DNR’s division of fish and wildlife, said other fish and wildlife agencies, ammunition makers and hunting groups will be included in the discussion.

While Holsten recommended that people who still have venison inspect it before eating it, he also acknowledged that in many cases the lead fragments are too small to see.

"For the individual who has venison in their freezer, you’ve got to use your best judgment when eating it or feeding it to others," he said.

Holsten said he remains confident in the safety of his own venison. He said he processes his meat himself and always makes sure to cut out the area around where the bullet strikes.

"Now does that mean I’ve eliminated all fragments? I can’t say that. I believe I have greatly reduced the potential contamination of that meat with lead," he said.

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