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lead ammunition wildlife
Credit: Tamarack Wildlife Center

Researchers call for action on lead-contaminated meat due to EHN reporting

“This public health issue extends beyond donated meat to millions of Americans in the hunting community, who regularly consume meat from game harvested with lead ammunition.”

Scientists from the U.S. and Europe are calling for inspections of donated hunted meat at U.S. food banks to prevent toxic lead exposure for children and families.

The paper, published last month in the American Journal of Public Health, cites an investigation that found lead fragments are a known danger in hunted meat, but most states do not inspect for possible contamination. The reporting showed this lack of oversight could result in potentially hundreds of thousands of lead-contaminated meals each year, with fetuses, children and pregnant people most at risk.

There is no safe level of lead in people’s blood. Exposure causes a range of health impacts including attention problems, decreased IQ, increased problem behaviors, kidney disease, preeclampsia and cardiovascular issues.

A majority of hunters still use lead ammunition — though alternatives exist — and animals killed with lead bullets can contain fragments of the metal. The amount of contamination depends on the type of gun and bullet, whether the bullet hit the animal’s bones, and whether or not the meat is ground. (In Minnesota, where state officials actually test donated hunted meat for lead, most lead contamination has been found in ground venison).

Reporter and University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health doctorial student and researcher Sam Totoni conducted the original investigation for and also led the new call-to-action paper. Totoni and coauthors also pointed to the environmental injustice implications of this lack of testing.

Lacking food safety standards

The authors acknowledge the benefits of donated hunted meat, but point out that there is nearly no oversight to ensure the safety of this type of meat at food banks across the U.S.

Most states have adopted the FDA Food Code, which doesn’t address donated food. As a result, people who shop in grocery stores are protected from adulterated food that contains tiny pieces of metal, while people who receive donated food are not.

“An underlying lack of food safety standards for adulterated donated food increases risks to low-income recipients, who are already disproportionately affected by elevated blood lead levels,” Totoni and colleagues wrote in their new report.

 Industry pushback

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that hunters should not use lead bullets. A 2016 review found that of 570 scientific articles on lead ammunition, 99% raised concerns about its toxic impacts on health and the environment.

However, there is a concerted effort by the firearm industry and affiliated groups to push back against regulation and promote the continued use of lead ammunition. Totoni outlined the extensive science denial and misleading tactics by these groups in follow-up reporting last year.

“Despite the well-established scientific basis for regulation of lead ammunition for hunting, the topic has been politicized by misinformation campaigns portraying concerns about ingesting lead ammunition as a product of antihunting agendas,” the authors wrote in the new report.

A model for testing hunted meat 

lead ammunition wildlife

In Minnesota, where state officials test donated hunted meat for lead, most lead contamination has been found in ground venison.

Credit: Blueridge Wildlife Center

lead ammunition wildlife

Fragments of lead in ground venison. There is nearly no oversight to ensure the safety of donated hunted meat at food banks across the U.S.

Credit: Blueridge Wildlife Center

Despite the lack of national food safety regulations for donated food, Minnesota provides a model to protect recipients of donated hunted meat: The state’s Department of Agriculture has an annual inspection program of hunted meat, which is financed by tacking an extra dollar on the sales of some hunting permits. Between 2014 and 2019, the state discarded about 9% of hunted meat packages annually because they found evidence of lead contamination via x-ray.

While such state programs could prevent people — which largely are low-income consumers — from eating lead, “the most reliable form of primary prevention from lead-adulterated meat is the consistent use of nonlead ammunition for hunting,” the authors wrote.

“This public health issue extends beyond donated meat to millions of Americans in the hunting community, who regularly consume meat from game harvested with lead ammunition. We call for primary prevention actions to address this neglected environmental justice problem.”

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