TV-6 Investigates: Lead in venison; Iowa natural resource officials actions

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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) - We all know children shouldn't eat lead, but fragments of lead ammunition can be found in wild game, and end up on a child's plate. Efforts to eliminate this risk to children in Iowa have failed.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources worked with the Iowa Department of Public Health to quell a public relations crisis back in 2008. Deer meat donated to food pantries was testing positive for lead across the upper Midwest. The Department of Public Health said the state's blood lead testing data would have shown a link to lead from venison, and it said the state has never traced a case of lead poisoning to deer meat. The DNR has relied on that stance ever since.

Hunters provide thousands of meals to hungry Iowans every year by donating deer to meat lockers across the state. The lockers process the deer into two pound bags of ground meat.

When lead in deer meat surfaced in 2008, one of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources main efforts was educating meat processors.It sent a letter to meat lockers across the state.

The Executive Director of the Iowa Meat Processors Association Kennenth Richmann said, "This is the only thing that I have ever seen from the state referring to lead in deer."

Richmann has cut meat since 1959. He's found lead slugs in deer meat before.

"When you find it you pull it out and get rid of it, and I think just about every processor does that," said Richmann.

He said processors don't necessarily look for lead. They do trim away bruised meat around the entry and exit wounds of the animal.

"As we're trimming it, all of this that's discolored and bloodshot, bone fragmented deer, when you get to that we just throw that away, and a good share of the time, that's where you're going to find it in that area," said Richmann.

The DNR advised trimming away even more and checking the grinder after each deer. Richmann doubted processors would check the grinder that frequently.

"More than likely not, because that would be very time consuming, more of them will probably do it once an hour," said Richmann.

But the processors can't eliminate the lead risk. The Minnesota DNR found lead fragments from shotgun slugs appeared on average as much as five inches away from the wound. University of North Dakota school of medicine radiology chair Ted Fogarty said the fragments would be nearly impossible to find. He needed to X-ray his hands while holding meat samples,

"In order to find the little fragment and pull it out with the tweezers," said Fogarty.

He said processors and people eating the meat stand little chance of finding lead fragments.

"How many people are eating this everyday and we have no sensory clues," asked Fogarty.

The Iowa DNR declined requests for an on camera interview with TV-6 Investigates. A spokesperson pointed us to the lead warning in the state's hunting guide. One of its recommendations is to use non-lead ammunition.

Wildlife Rehabilitator Kay Neumann said, "Some of these particles are like dust, some of 'em you'll see, some of 'em you won't, and they go places you would never dream."

She runs a wildlife rehabilitation group in west central Iowa. We met her while researching lead poisoning in bald eagles. A hunter herself, Neumann advocates for hunters to use non-lead ammo.

"Hunters that don't have any idea, yeah we need to get to those people, and get them good information so they can make good decisions," said Neumann.

An Iowa group worried about lead in deer meat asked the state's Natural Resources Commission to change the deer donation program. The group wanted meat lockers to only take deer hunted with non-toxic ammunition. The DNR opposed the change. Audio recordings show DNR Wildlife Bureau Chief Dale Garner relied on the Iowa Department of Public Health's stance in his presentation to the commission.

"Department of Health said even though this statement was written several years ago, we continue to support the statement as written," said Garner.

TV-6 Investigates obtained internal emails saying the public health department had never looked for lead in venison. It does consider the issue now. Garner didn't disclose that fact to the commissioners at that meeting.

"We stand on their decision so we as a department would ask that you deny the petition," said Garner.

The Iowa Natural Resources Commission voted down the proposed change. Many commissioners said they felt this proposal was similar to a past effort eliminating lead ammunition in dove hunting. That regulation was overturned by the governor. The commissioners said the legislature should make the decision to ban lead.

That leaves meat processors on the front line for limiting lead in deer meat. Richmann said he's not sure what else they can do.

"I feel they think we were doing as good a job as we could do," said Richmann.

USDA meat inspection rules condemn the entire head of any livestock if the animal is killed by shooting it with a lead bullet in the head before slaughter. The rule declares that meat inedible.

***Editors note: The Food Bank of Iowa sent us this statement on Wednesday after our first story aired Tuesday.

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.