Minnesota officials are all but finished X-raying donated venison for lead bullet fragments, and meat found to be lead-free is now being shipped to food shelves around the state.

Of about 10,000 packages of venison tested, 560 -- or 5.9 percent -- tested positive for lead, officials said. That meat -- about 1,100 pounds -- will be destroyed after it is tested further to determine lead levels. About 18,000 pounds of venison that showed no detectable lead have been released to food shelves.

"We're working on getting that venison redistributed to the charities,'' said Nicole Neeser, meat inspection program manager for the state Department of Agriculture.

Earlier this month, officials stopped the venison distribution and decided to X-ray all donated meat after finding that 5.3 percent of venison sampled contained lead fragments. The discovery surprised officials because it came despite extensive efforts to help meat processors eliminate lead bullet fragments. Processors were required to attend training sessions, to supply only whole cuts of meat, not ground venison, and to reject deer with extensive shot damage.

"It's definitely more [lead] than we expected,'' Neeser said. Officials earlier had found 2 percent of whole-cut meat was tainted with lead fragments, so they had hoped to reduce that percentage. Instead, it increased nearly threefold.

The state imposed the processing restrictions this fall after finding lead in 22 percent of donated venison -- most of it ground venison -- earlier this year.

The percentage of packages that tested positive for lead varied widely among the 33 processors that participated in the program, from 17 percent to zero.

"I know they've really worked hard to try to minimize lead in the meat,'' Neeser said. "I think it really shows we're asking them to do something that's very hard to do.''

While the testing this season is nearly done -- a handful of processors still have a few deer -- the future of the venison-donation program is uncertain. X-raying all donated venison is expensive -- it costs about 75 cents a pound, Neeser estimated. "Is this program cost-effective? That will certainly be a topic of discussion,'' she said. "We want to see it continue as long as we're able to provide a safe product.''

The three agencies involved -- the Departments of Health, Natural Resources and Agriculture -- will meet next year with stakeholders and legislators to discuss the program's future, Neeser said.

The donation program began just last year. Funding comes from $160,000 appropriated by the Legislature, an increase in nonresident hunting license fees and hunter donations.