Minnesota food shelves will halt distribution of venison donated by hunters after lead particles were discovered in ground venison at North Dakota food shelves.

Authorities urged that any donated meat that had already left the food shelves not be eaten.

The Minnesota venison will be tested for lead fragments.

Hunters donated about 78,000 pounds of venison last fall, the first year of the statewide program paid for by the state and hunter donations. Officials said they don't know how much already has been consumed.

Minnesota officials took the action after the North Dakota Department of Health told food pantries there Wednesday to throw out 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of donated venison after a physician found lead bullet fragments in 60 percent of the samples tested. Another 12,000 pounds of venison already has been distributed.

The doctor, William Cornatzer of Bismarck, N.D. -- an avid big-game hunter -- said hunters should reconsider eating any deer or big game shot with lead bullets from high-powered rifles.

Those bullets fragment on impact and can spread lead far beyond the entrance wounds, he said.

"This is very disturbing news that we found," Cornatzer said.

Deer killed with shotgun slugs or muzzleloader slugs shouldn't pose a problem because those slugs don't fragment, he said.

While the findings surprised state officials in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, they also provoked some skepticism.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the shooting, hunting and firearms industry, sharply criticized the North Dakota action.

"There is absolutely no peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support the unfortunate and unnecessary overreaction by health officials in North Dakota to have food pantries discard perfectly good meat because it was taken with traditional ammunition," the foundation said in a statement.

It said the decision "was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the chemistry of lead and the human digestive system. The state is needlessly creating a scare upon hunters that has no basis in science."

In Wisconsin, the head of the venison-donation program expressed doubts, too.

"I thought it was preposterous that a bullet would leave that much residue," said Laurie Fike. "My feeling is the lead got in there some other way. I have a lot of questions."

She said state officials will discuss the situation today.

Wisconsin hunters donated 414,000 pounds of venison last fall to food shelves -- five times the amount in Minnesota. While Minnesota's program is new, Wisconsin's has been operating for years.

Cornatzer, 53, a dermatologist and professor at the University of North Dakota medical school in Grand Forks, said consuming lead is a problem.

"It's not rocket science, if you put it in your stomach, you absorb it," he said. "We know lead is a severe neurotoxin, especially in young children and women of child-bearing age."

"I'm a big-game hunter, and have been since I was 13," said Cornatzer, who has hunted deer, elk, antelope, caribou and musk-ox all over the world. "I'm eating this, and I fed this to my own children. This is terrible."

Concern began with condors

Cornatzer said he became concerned after hearing about possible lead fragments through his membership in the Peregrine Fund of Boise, Idaho, a group that promotes the conservation of birds of prey, including peregrine falcons and California condors.

The organization says lead from bullets in the carcasses of animals is primarily responsible for lead poisoning that has endangered the condors. (In July, California will ban the use of all lead ammunition by hunters in the condor's range.)

A lead bullet shot from a high-powered rifle "fragments into hundreds of tiny pieces," said Rick Watson, vice president and director of international programs for the Peregrine Fund. "Usually a hunter cuts away damaged meat, but the lead sprays through a large part of the animal," he said.

Bad news in CT scans

Cornatzer decided to look at the issue himself, so he acquired 100 pounds of donated ground venison, processed by a variety of meat processors. Dr. Ted Fogarty, chairman of the Department of Radiology at the UND medical school, did a high-definition CT scan of the meat in January.

"To be honest, I didn't expect to find much," said Cornatzer.

"Unfortunately, 60 percent of these one-pound packages had multiple lead fragments. The worst part: They are not metal fragments like a shotgun pellet, that you can feel. They are like lead dust that's in the meat. We're eating it."

He sent samples to a laboratory, which identified the samples as lead.

That was enough proof for him that a larger problem exists. He threw his venison away.

"It's not worth the risk," he said.

He said he's not worried the issue will be seized upon by anti-hunters, because there's a relatively simple solution.

"We hunters have a viable alternative -- we have bullets that don't contain lead and don't fragment. And they are proven to put down large-game species. We need to switch over to lead-free bullets."

Federal Cartridge Co. of Anoka referred questions to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Meanwhile, Roger Rostvet, a hunter and deputy director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said Thursday he isn't sure what to tell hunters.

"We don't know if lead particles in wild game are a significant health issue in North Dakota," he said. "The Health Department feels it is."

Doug Smith • 612-673- 7667