Measures address lead-fragment fears
By Chris Niskanen
Source: Pioneer Press
Minnesota will resume its food-shelf venison donation program this fall, but with new practices to offset health concerns over lead particles found in the meat.
Deer hunters donated about 78,000 pounds of meat to the program last fall, but the Department of Agriculture in April ordered food shelves to destroy 12,000 pounds after tests found small lead fragments in mostly venison burger.
The program has been in limbo ever since.
Officials say the fragments, from dustlike particles to BB-sized bits, come from lead bullets that fragment when they hit a deer. No human illnesses have been linked to the lead.
But the discovery in Minnesota, and similar discoveries in other states, prompted a massive examination of deer donation programs involving state departments of health, agriculture and natural resources across the Midwest.
In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a North Dakota study to examine lead levels of people who eat venison.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture confirmed Thursday it would resume its food-shelf venison program after a recent meeting of state commissioners of agriculture, health and natural resources.
"How the program will look hasn't been determined yet,'' said Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, director of the Department of Agriculture's dairy and food inspection division. "But certainly, it's something we're taking very seriously."
The lead discovery was a blow to a new program popular among hunters, agriculture officials and food shelves. It was the first year hunters and the state paid to help distribute deer to food shelves.
People familiar with the new program say the changes likely will mean lead advisories for food-shelf users and switching from ground venison to whole cuts of meat.
That is because 26 percent of the tested food-shelf ground venison showed particles of lead, while only 2 percent of tested whole cuts, such as chops, steaks and roasts, showed lead particles.
"My understanding is the donations will be whole cuts of meat and not ground meat,'' said Newell Searle, vice president of external relations for Second Harvest Heartland, a Maplewood-based food bank. "How people (food-shelf
users) respond to that, I can't say."
Searle said ground venison was the preferred option in the past because it was easy for users to prepare. The grinding process also yields more meat from the deer carcass, he said, adding that venison is a popular item at food shelves.
But in the wake of the lead discovery, the Department of Agriculture and Department of Natural Resources are promoting a cleaner-is-better approach to venison preparation.
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said the Agriculture Department is discussing a new "aggressive" training and education program for venison processors, though details of the program haven't been made public.
Hunters Urged To Switch Bullets / The Agriculture Department's tests of meat packages from individual processors showed widely varying results. Some processors had no lead particles in their packaged samples, while others had 70 percent of their packages test positive for lead.
Kassenborg said agriculture officials are still discussing with processors any changes in their venison-handling practices.
Johnson said processors might be able to reduce lead particles by grinding smaller batches of venison and cleaning their equipment more often. One bullet fragment in a grinder could be distributed through a batch of meat, he said.
The Department of Natural Resources also is issuing venison-handling advice in its hunting regulations booklet, to be released in a few days. The agency suggests hunters not use excessively shot meat and to trim extra meat away from the wound.
The agency also suggests hunters switch from lead fragmenting bullets to copper or bonded bullets that don't fragment. Johnson said his group supports that advice.
While some hunters remain skeptical of the health threat from lead in venison, Johnson said the discovery has meant a healthy examination of hunting practices and food safety.
"It's good it came out," he said. "Any time we can make our sport better, keep it safer and make the venison better, that's a good thing."
Minnesota's archery deer season opens Sept. 13, while the early antlerless, or doe, season opens Oct. 11. The regular firearms season opens Nov. 8.
Chris Niskanen can be reached at 651-228-5524.