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

Published: May. 3, 2017 at 5:49 PM CDT
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You wouldn't knowingly eat contaminated food, or serve it to your family. Wild deer meat is a popular option for hunters and local food pantries, but research has raised questions about lead in that meat.

TV-6 Investigates X-rayed 14 samples of deer meat from local pantries and hunters. Four X-rays came back with glowing white fragments, which is consistent with metal. We sent the samples to another lab to test for lead. The worst sample tested positive at a level 194 times higher than the limit set by the European Food Safety Agency for lead in meat.

Back in 2008 Iowa tested ten samples of deer meat. Two showed trace amounts of lead. Records TV-6 Investigates uncovered show the state decided against further tests, saying if lead in deer meat was a problem, it would show up in state required kindergarten blood tests. But records also show the state wasn't even looking for this source of lead.

At the Durant-Wilton food pantry, Ross Conrad picks out staples to stretch his food budget. He usually picks up deer meat donated by hunters through the state's HUSH program. He's read the lead warning Iowa put on the back of the bag.

Conrad said, "I've heard about that in there, but I'm still here ticking, so, plus they say it's best if you mix something, and there's only small amounts in it."

Conrad doesn't have children, and doesn't know if he should worry about lead.

"I guess it's kind of like the water, they say there's lead in water, so you can't be scared of everything," said Conrad.

But doctors say even small amounts of lead found in meat pose health risks, especially to children and pregnant women. University of Colorado medical school professor Michael Kosnett says if children eat venison with small amounts of lead regularly.

"They would run the risk of having elevated levels of lead that have been shown to have an adverse effect on how a child's brain develops," said Kosnett.

He's studied lead and its effects for the last 30 years. He said research has shown lead harms a child's brain and does more damage at low levels.

Kosnett said, "You lose more I.Q. points at low levels of exposure, per increment of blood lead, than you do at higher levels."

So why does Iowa allow deer hunted with lead to be donated to food pantries? Part of the answer is found on the bag itself. In big bold print it says, "Iowa has not found cases of lead poisoning from lead in venison" Yet state emails obtained through a records request show the Department of Public Health wasn't looking for that connection. Environmental Health Director Ken Sharp wrote at the time:

"...lead in venison is not an exposure we ask about in our lead poisoning case management..."

He was responding to questions about Iowa's limited testing of deer meat. The Department of Public Health was helping the Department of Natural Resources respond to a public relations crisis in 2008. Across the upper Midwest, donated deer meat kept testing positive for lead.

University of North Dakota Radiology chair Ted Fogarty said, "As the C.T. scanner was clicking through, we could see right away there was a lot of lead in it."

Fogarty helped spark the discussion. He co-authored a study X-raying deer meat for lead in North Dakota. The authors found fragments and quickly realized they were small and difficult to find in the meat.

"There's no way you're going to crunch on that with your teeth and then feel it," said Fogarty.

North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin began testing hundreds of samples of meat. Iowa tested ten. It found two with trace amounts of lead and decided to stop testing. Another of Sharp's emails explains why. The state relied on blood tests.

Sharp wrote, "Since 1992, IDPH has collected all blood lead tests results from over 500,000 children and over 25,000 adults. In the cases of concern that IDPH and its contractors have investigated, none have ever been attributed to lead in venison."

No one from the Department of Public Health would answer questions on camera. Spokeswoman Polly Carver-Kim sent an email saying the state now asks about lead in venison, if field workers can't find a cause for a child with elevated blood lead levels.

She also said, "However, the focus remains on deteriorating lead based paint as the primary cause of lead poisoning."

She also said the state believes the benefits outweigh the risks.

"We also know sources of lean protein are an important part of a healthy diet that likely outweighs the minimal risks associated with lead in venison," wrote Carver-Kim.

The Centers for Disease Control said there is no known safe level of lead in children, but it sets a level of five micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood to start taking health action. Iowa doesn't take action until 10. Carver-Kim said that's due to a lack of resources.

Kosnett says children already may have tiny amounts of lead in their blood. But remember, our meat sample contained 19.4 parts per million of lead. If served to a child, that's roughly 1,900 micrograms of lead in one serving.

"200 times more, and that kind of lead exposure, especially if done on a regular basis, if that meat were used for several meals a week, it could have a serious adverse effect," said Kosnett.

Studies from North Dakota, Norway, and Greenland all found people eating game meat with lead had higher blood lead levels than those who didn't. Kosnett said the solution is simple. A hunter can choose to use non-lead ammunition. The state could require hunters to use non-lead ammunition too.

"They have all the benefits of providing for their family, by eliminating the risk of putting a toxic substance in their food," said Kosnett.

Back at the Durant-Wilton food pantry, Ross Conrad said the state could probably do more.

"I guess i would say, you have to put certain things on labels of food," said Conrad.

The state emails also show the Department of Public Health created meal recommendations for people eating venison. It sent them out in a press release at the time.

The release said children under six could safely eat two four ounce servings per week.

Pregnant women could eat one four ounce serving per day.

These limits were considered for the HUSH bag, but didn't make the final approval. Iowa's Natural Resources Commission was asked to change the HUSH program three years ago to eliminate possible lead contamination. That effort failed. TV-6 Investigates asks why, Thursday.

Wednesday afternoon the Food Bank of Iowa sent us this statement regarding our investigation of possible lead contamination in deer meat:

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.