Brad Bachmann was stunned to learn last week that 11 of 15 samples of ground venison he processed last fall for the state venison donation program had evidence of lead contamination.

That 73 percent rate put him near the bottom of 39 Minnesota meat processing plants whose venison has been tested by the state for lead bullet fragments.

State Agriculture Department officials sent out letters to the processors last week, telling of the department's findings as part of an update to its lead-venison investigation. That investigation was launched in March after North Dakota officials discovered lead in venison donated to foodshelves there.

"I just can't believe we were on the high side," said Bachmann, who owns Lakes Processing in Detroit Lakes. He said he always liberally cuts away damaged meat near bullet wounds.

"I try very hard. I don't want something to be less than the best," he said.

But he wasn't alone in his surprise and consternation.

Samples from 34 of the 39 processors (87 percent) had some apparent lead contamination, based on X-ray examination. (Thirty-one other processors participated in the venison-donation program, but venison from them wasn't found at state foodshelves, meaning it likely had been consumed.) The percentage of tainted samples ranged from zero to 77 percent.

But it's difficult to draw conclusions based on the small sample size and the fact that lead contamination of venison wasn't an issue until recently.

"It's important to remember it's just a snapshot in time, but it's certainly encouragement for them to look at their practices," said Dr. Nicole Neeser of the state Department of Agriculture.

Changing practices?

Bachmann speculated a bullet fragment might have gotten stuck in his meat grinder plate, leaving traces of lead in several packages of ground meat. "I've seen it happen," he said.

Processors, himself included, often grind multiple deer. So one with a lead fragment could end up contaminating many pounds of meat distributed to many people. Bachmann processes up to 600 deer each fall.

The only way to avoid cross-contamination would be to grind one deer, then disassemble the grinder and clean it before grinding the next deer, Bachmann said.

"I think that would really help," he said. But it would be time-consuming for processors and likely cost customers more.

"It would take hours every week. Without question, the cost to process would go up."

But Bachmann speculated hunters might be willing to pay more to ensure there's no lead in their venison.

Venison processing is big business in Minnesota. Hunters kill more than 250,000 deer annually.

Other lead results

The state Agriculture Department lead-venison investigation, which was discussed last week in Bloomington at a meeting of 40 officials from seven Midwest states, also offered other information.

Evidence of lead has been found in 22 percent of 1,239 samples, including 26 percent in ground venison and 2 percent in whole meat. Laboratory testing is continuing on the amount of lead present in the samples, but so far it has varied widely. The highest levels exceeded 100 parts per million.

Also some venison samples contained lead, even though X-rays didn't detect it. Officials are continuing their tests.

Last week's meeting saw 40 agriculture, health and natural resource officials from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Michigan and Missouri discuss how to respond to the lead-in-venison issue.

Most, including Minnesota, will offer advice to hunters and venison processors on what they can do to reduce the chances of lead contamination.

More questions than answers

But the extent of the problem still is unclear.

For example, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources collected and tested 123 samples from DNR employees who processed their own deer themselves. Officials expected to find little, if any, lead.

Instead, about 18 percent had some lead contamination.

"I was shocked," said Lou Cornicelli, DNR big-game program manager and a deer hunter whose own venison had some lead contamination.

Officials also don't know what health ramifications the lead poses, but health officials noted that lead is a neurotoxin and that even low levels should be avoided, especially for children and pregnant women.

In North Dakota, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is testing lead levels in the blood of 738 residents, including venison eaters.

And the fate of the venison donation programs in several states, including Minnesota, is uncertain. Minnesota officials expect to decide by the end of the month.