Venison donated to food shelves would be exempt from food safety statutes under bills in both the Minnesota House and Senate -- an unprecedented change that state officials say would pose a risk to the health of consumers.

Supporters say it would remove a hurdle for hunters and meat processors, resulting in more venison going to the needy.

But state officials say lead bullet fragments found in processed venison are a major concern. Both the state agriculture and health departments oppose the move.

"If this bill is enacted into law, vulnerable Minnesotans who get food from food shelves could consume venison contaminated with unknown amounts of lead,'' wrote commissioners David Frederickson of agriculture and Edward Ehlinger of health in a joint letter to legislators. "This could pose a risk to their health.''

"This is a dangerous path to go down,'' said Greta Gauthier of the state Department of Agriculture. "No food has ever been exempted before.''

But Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said the risk is overblown and the state has overreacted. He said he and other hunters have been eating deer shot with lead bullets for years, without apparent ill effects.

"Certainly my intention isn't to poison poor people,'' he said. "I want to get more meat to the food shelves. They can make a choice. There is a certain amount of personal responsibility [needed].''

Ingebrigtsen said the venison could be labeled "hunter harvested, not inspected,'' so food shelf users can decide for themselves whether to accept the meat.

His bill was approved by a Senate committee and sent to the full Senate for a vote, likely this week.

The number of donated deer and amount of processed venison have fallen dramatically from 75,000 pounds in 2007 to 19,000 pounds in 2008, after North Dakota found lead bullet fragments in venison donated to its state program. Minnesota then checked and found lead in its venison as well, prompting officials to require processors to be better trained. And the state began X-raying all meat before distributing it to food shelves.

In recent years, about 6 percent of the processed venison has contained lead fragments and was discarded. About 400 deer and 13,000 pounds of venison were donated last year.

Officials say bullets fired through high-powered rifles can shatter on impact, spreading tiny lead particles into an animal. If venison is exempt from food safety statues, the state couldn't require the X-rays or otherwise control its distribution, officials say.

"It would be our recommendation [to food shelves] to not take any venison from anyone, unless it's been hunted by archery,'' Gauthier said. "The Center for Disease Control says there is no safe threshold for lead exposure.''

Added Gauthier: "We think it's the wrong way to go.''

Wolf bill advances

Ingebrigtsen's wide-ranging game and fish bill also would establish a wolf hunting season in Minnesota. The bill, similar to one in the House, requires the season to start with the firearms deer hunting season.

Wolf hunting and trapping licenses each would cost $26. A nonresident wolf hunting license would cost $230. Nonresidents wouldn't be allowed to trap wolves. The DNR would set a harvest quota and close the season when it is reached.

Southeast deer

The DNR has created a new position to better manage deer and deer hunter-landowner relations in southeastern Minnesota. Clint Luedtke, a former wildlife biologist from Arizona, has been hired to work with farmers, recreational land owners and others to reduce deer-related crop damage and increase effective deer management strategies. Luedtke will work out of the DNR's Whitewater Wildlife Management Area office, and will work primarily in Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona counties.

Another shutdown?

The Senate approved a bill that would require the DNR to maintain online hunting and fishing license sales, even if state government is shut down, as it was last year.

Doug Smith •