TV-6 Investigates: Lead in venison

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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) - UPDATE- The Food Bank of Iowa released a statement to KWQC on 5/3/17. We've posted the full statement at the bottom of this story.

Lead is something you just don't want to eat. The Centers for Disease Control and numerous other health bodies say there is no safe level of lead in children. But multiple studies have found people who eat game meat contaminated with lead have higher blood concentrations of lead than those who don't.

There are lots of questions about the safety of deer meat shot with lead ammunition. Research shows the ammunition breaks apart when it strikes an animal, leaving small fragments behind. Those fragments have been found in meat after it has been processed and packaged for people to eat. Hunters and people picking up donated deer meat from the food pantry are at risk of eating these lead fragments.

Across our area, hungry families visit local food pantries. They pick up potatoes, canned produce, and pasta. Those are staples to keep food on the kitchen table. At the Durant-Wilton pantry, we found Aaron Powers picking up a little extra help to feed his family. One of the items he always chooses is ground deer meat.

Powers said, "It makes great chili, tacos, stuff like that, it's a great substitute for hamburger."

In Iowa, the meat comes from hunters who donate a deer carcass to meat lockers participating in the HUSH (Help Us Stop Hunger) program. The lockers process the deer into two pound packages and the Food Bank of Iowa distributes the meat across the state. Pantry leaders like Wapello's Kathy Barrick said the donated deer meat is a huge help.

"If we did not have that we'd probably have to come up with $1,000 either for the purchase of meat, or we'd have to cut back on say Christmas baskets," said Barrick.

Barrick said meat is expensive for her pantry to get, but needed for her clients.

"We want to give wholesome nutritious food to our clients," said Barrick.

But with lead ammunition still in use, is this deer meat safe to eat? TV-6 Investigates collected 14 packages from pantries and hunters around the area. A medical school helped us X-ray them. The results: four of the 14 packages contained glowing white fragments in them, consistent with metal objects. The pictures are similar to those taken by University of North Dakota Radiologist Ted Fogarty. He co-authored a study looking for lead in donated deer meat in North Dakota.

"There's no doubt that that's metal, there's not a radiologist in this country that wouldn't look at this and say that's metal," said Dr. Fogarty.

TV-6 Investigates sent those four packages to a lab for more testing. The worst sample came back with a lead concentration of 19.4 parts per million. That's 194 times higher than the limit set by the European Food Safety Agency for lead in meat. Back in Wapello, Kathy Barrick's torn on what should be done.

"If there is a problem we need to do something about it, if that happens, we're going to have make adjustments somewhere else," said Barrick.

But she points out the meat comes with a warning.

"The packages do all have the warning on them, people are aware when they use that as a choice," said Barrick.

Iowa added a warning label to the meat years ago. It says children under six and pregnant women are most at risk from lead. It says the state has never found a case of lead poisoning from people eating lead in venison. But multiple studies have found people eating game meat with lead do have higher blood lead levels. Back in Wilton, Powers said the warning is good enough.

"The warning should be enough, mainly that's for the younger kids," said Powers.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources said hunters donated 3,300 deer to the HUSH program during the 2015-2016 hunting season. The DNR said the meat generated 604,000 meals to hungry Iowans. How many of those packages contained lead fragments is unknown.

Iowa health officials tested ten samples of deer meat back in 2008 when this issue first surfaced. It found two packages with trace amounts of lead but decided not to do any more tests. TV-6 Investigates asks why in part two on Wednesday.

Food Bank of Iowa Statement:

In regard to the recent KWQC TV6 story about possible lead contamination in donated venison, Food Bank of Iowa would like to reassure KWQC, the Quad Cities, and all Iowans, that Food Bank of Iowa is dedicated to food safety. Our distribution team works diligently to provide the individuals we serve with safe, nutritious food by adhering to food safety standards, including state, federal, and independent requirements.

Food Bank of Iowa cooperates continually with the Iowa Food Bank Association, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the Iowa Department of Public Health to ensure the HUSH program remains safe and effective. Food Bank of Iowa will continue to distribute this vital source of protein to Iowans in need with the supervision of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Department of Public Health. If an immediate health risk is identified, Food Bank of Iowa will work with these stakeholders to protect our clients’ health. By providing venison through the HUSH program, we are continuing to offer an important, nutritious source of protein for Iowans struggling to feed themselves and their families.

Our mission is to provide food for Iowa children, families, and seniors to lead full and active lives, strengthening the communities where they live. Food Bank of Iowa passed an in-depth inspection by AIB International, an independent organization, and maintains compliance with all food safety requirements of Feeding America.