Despite extensive efforts this fall to help meat processors eliminate lead bullet fragments in venison donated to Minnesota food shelves, random X-rays show that an unexpectedly large amount of the meat still contained lead.

The surprising discovery raises doubts about whether processors -- or hunters -- can ensure that deer shot with lead bullets won't contain lead particles.

"As long as we use lead bullets, are we going to have lead in venison? I think the answer is yes,'' said Lou Cornicelli, Department of Natural Resources big game program leader. The processors involved in the venison donation program are professionals who participated in special training this summer to ward off lead contamination, "and despite their best efforts, there was still lead,'' Cornicelli said.

The finding that 5.3 percent of the tested samples contained lead fragments supported a study Cornicelli did last summer that showed lead bullets fired by high-powered rifles shatter on impact, sending lead particles - many too small to see or feel - into meat up to 18 inches from the wound. "This illustrates the point that these fragments are going to be really hard to get out,'' he said.

Officials say the only way to eliminate lead contamination is to use something else, such as copper bullets, which are considerably more expensive. Lead ammunition has been the standard for hundreds of years, and, until this year, wasn't considered a human health issue.

How serious a health matter?

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said he questions whether the lead in venison is detrimental to human health. "I think we'll find the answer is no,'' he said. He said the issue has been overblown. "You can never reduce the risks of anything 100 percent,'' he said.

For now, all of the donated venison -- about 20,000 to 25,000 pounds -- will be X-rayed before any of it is distributed to food shelves. Tainted meat will be discarded. The recent tests actually showed a higher percentage of whole-cut venison with lead than had been found in tests of similar venison cuts earlier this year -- 2 percent.

"It certainly wasn't what we were expecting to see,'' said Nicole Neeser, meat inspection program manager for the state Department of Agriculture.

The state imposed new restrictions for the program this fall after finding lead in 22 percent of donated venison earlier this year. The changes included accepting only whole cuts of meat; last year most of the donated venison was ground. It also included mandatory training for processors on how to prevent contamination. And deer with extensive shot damage were not accepted.

"It appears those interventions weren't as effective as we hoped they would be,'' Neeser said.

"Minnesota sets the bar high when it comes to food safety,'' Agriculture Department Assistant Commissioner Joe Martin said in a statement. "The donated venison program must meet the same standards we set for regulated food businesses.''

X-raying donated meat

The findings also cast doubt on the future of the fledging venison-donation program, launched just last year. Funding comes from $160,000 appropriated by the Legislature, an increase in nonresident hunting license fees and hunter donations.

But X-raying all of the venison is expensive, Neeser said. The state is paying a firm 30 cents a pound to screen it. The frozen venison will be collected from processors around the state and shipped to the Twin Cities, where it will be screened in an X-ray machine similar to those used at airports, Neeser said. That should be completed by mid-December.

"Definitely the cost of the program goes up significantly,'' Neeser said. "But we expect at least 95 percent of the product will be free of lead and will be able to go to the food shelves.''

She said food shelves want the venison.

Should it continue?

Officials plan to confer with legislators, hunters, processors, food shelves and other stakeholders in coming months to determine whether the donation program will continue.

Lead is a toxin, and health officials say elevated levels in the blood can harm children and adults, but the exact level at which health effects occur depends on a variety of factors. Minnesota officials recommended this fall that children under 6 and pregnant women -- those must susceptible to lead poisoning -- not eat any venison shot with lead bullets.

The venison-donation program is important to the DNR because it encourages hunters to shoot more deer than they can consume themselves. In many areas of the state, high deer populations are a concern. Last year, hunters donated 2,000 deer. But so far this year, likely because fewer processors have agreed to participate, hunters have donated about 675 deer.

The state pays processors $70 for each donated deer they handle.

Doug Smith • 612-673-7667