Midwest states vary in handling the risk of lead in venison donated to food banks

Iowa requires warning labels about the possible presence of lead in shot-harvested venison. Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska do not

By: and - June 6, 2022 3:00 am

Chris Ackman goes through donated bread items at the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program Inc. in Hiawatha, Iowa (Samantha Horton/Midwest Newsroom).

HIAWATHA, Iowa — A walk-in freezer about two stories high sits in one corner of a warehouse owned by a food bank called Hawkeye Area Community Action Program Inc.

Chris Ackman, the food bank’s communication manager, points to the shelving racks where any donated venison the organization receives is typically stored.

Known as the Help Us Stop Hunger, or HUSH, program, the venison is donated by hunters from around the state, and Ackman says the two-pound tubes of ground meat go pretty quickly, lasting only a few months.

“It’s a pretty critical program, I think, because there are a lot of hunters in Iowa,” he said. “And, it’s well enjoyed by a lot of families as well.”

Donated ground beef in a freezer at Hawkeye Area Community Action Program Inc. warehouse Hiawatha, Iowa. (Samantha Horton/Midwest Newsroom)

Similar programs around the country have been applauded as a way for hunters to do something they enjoy while also helping feed those in need. Iowa hunters donate around 3,500 deer a year through the program.

From the hunters, the deer goes to a meat locker, where it’s ground, packaged and shipped off to food pantries around the state.

But before it hits the shelves, Iowa officials require a warning label on the venison package.
The label reads:

“Lead fragments may be found in processed venison. Children under 6 years and pregnant women are at the greatest risk from lead.”

In bold type, the label notes: “Iowa has not found cases of lead poisoning from lead in venison,” along with a number to call for more information.

Iowa stands out among Midwestern states in requiring a label warning about the potential hazard of lead ammunition and the fragments it can leave behind in shot-harvested game meat like venison. Donated venison in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska come with no similar warning label.

Packaging for donated venison after being processed. Card identifies the hunter, meat locker and other information about the donated meat. (Samantha Horton/Midwest Newsroom)

Concerns have increased in recent years about potential lead exposure in donated venison, as studies conducted have shown lead bullet fragments increase the risk of contamination.

In Minnesota, health officials began X-raying all donated venison looking for lead more than a decade ago. The process results in about 10% of all donated meat being discarded.

The Missouri Independent and NPR’s Midwest Newsroom are collaborating over the next few months to investigate high levels of lead in children in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

Lead paint and lead pipes are cited as the top risks of lead exposure to children. But as the pandemic has increased many families’ reliance on food pantries, it has also raised the profile of lead in donated meat.

“If that’s the most frequent protein that they have, that’s probably what they’re going to go for. And we know that food pantries have been struggling with having good protein products,” said Angela Anandappa, president of the food safety nonprofit Alliance for Advanced Sanitation.

For lower-income families, donated venison could be one of the few affordable proteins available, Anandappa said.

“So a matter of prevalence simply exists there in this area,” she said. “So, are we being just to our low income brethren? I think that’s questionable here.”

Increased need at food pantries

The pandemic led to more people turning to food pantries for help. Feeding America estimates that more than 38 million people are food insecure. Of that, one in six are children.

The rates of children’s food insecurity in four Midwestern states track closely with national figures:
Iowa: one in eight
Kansas: one in six
Missouri: one in seven
Nebraska: one in seven

While food pantries are facing a higher demand, food banks such as Hawkeye Area Community Action Program are struggling to keep up with the donations to meet the need in the communities it serves.

“Our shelves are a lot more bare than they have ever been,” Ackman said. ”So especially on those items that are high protein items, those are items that get hit pretty hard when it comes to inflation.”

According to the National Rifle Association’s website, 43 states have venison donation programs. The top five states listed for the highest donations include Iowa and Missouri, which together account for 8,500 hunted deer donated to food pantries each year. In Kansas and Nebraska, the average yearly total donated is less than 1,000.

Human health concerns over lead-tainted venison were first raised in a 2008 North Dakota study, which found that out of 100 packages of donated venison, more than half contained some lead. A follow-up study by the state the next year found about 6% of the 400 venison packages tested contained lead.

A 2020 study conducted by Illinois Wesleyan University found 48% of the ground venison packets collected from shot-harvested deer had metal fragments. Of the seven tested, all had various concentrations of lead.

Given Harper, one of the authors of the study and a hunter himself, said the fragments found were so small that someone eating the meat would likely be unaware of the lead.

“They were on the size of millimeters,” he said, adding that “any lead fragments then can be ingested by people and have some really harmful health effects.”

After the 2008 North Dakota study, Iowa paused distribution of donated venison and decided to test 10 two-pound packages for lead.

Mick Klemesrud, information specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. (Samantha Horton/Midwest Newsroom)

“We partnered with our health department, we collected some samples, sent it to the laboratory and we had 80% come back as a non-detect and then the other 20% was just a trace,” said Mick Klemesrud, information specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Of the two packages that tested positive for lead, the levels recorded were .59 parts per million (ppm) and .73 ppm. While there’s no standard for lead levels in meat in the United States, the European Union has a limit of .10 ppm for meat including bovine, sheep, pig and poultry.

A public records request of emails sent between Iowa DNR and the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) in 2008 revealed the health department questioned the decision to pause distribution of donated venison in response to the North Dakota study.

Emails show the health department pushed for the DNR to release a statement making it clear there were no documented cases of lead poisoning tied to consuming venison.

“I’m optimistic that reason will prevail once the general public understands that the exposures studied in (North Dakota) DID NOT CAUSE anyone to be lead poisoned using current definitions,” wrote Ken Sharp, then the director of the division of environmental health with the Iowa Department of Public Health. “I hope this is just a bump in the road and we can put all of this behind us sooner than later.”

Klemesrud said the state has no plans to study the issue at this time.

Health risks consuming lead

According to the CDC, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”

While DNR websites for a number of states mention the potential risk of lead in game meat, the information listed online by state health departments in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri does not include game meat as a potential source of lead. The only possible food mentioned as a source of lead exposure are some international foods.

Testing for lead can be inconsistent between states, with different policies for children based on where they live, if they are on Medicaid, if enrolling for the Women, Infants and Children program and level of risk to lead exposure.

“In society today, we are dealing with, and we have been dealing with, low level lead exposure, that doesn’t cause any symptoms,” said Michael Kosnett, a professor with the Colorado School of Public Health who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine and toxicology.

But while lower levels do not cause the same clear symptoms that higher levels would — including stumbling or the inability to maintain a normal level of consciousness — they can still cause harm.

“It causes adverse effects in the developing nervous system of children,” he said. “It could cause a loss of IQ.”

Kosnett published a study in 2008 showing that eating venison and other game meat shot with lead ammunition could raise an individual’s blood lead level, but he notes frequency of consumption must be taken into account.

“If there’s consumption just occasionally, few times a month or not on a regular basis, the risk is going to be much lower than if that is your major and sole source of protein,” he said. “If you have a family that the donated meat is the sole source of protein, and it’s going to be consumed regularly, there’s more of a basis for concern.”

Wisconsin researchers conducted a study that took samples of venison meat and determined the lead levels in the packages. They estimated a child’s risk of having an elevated blood lead level consuming venison in different quantities. The study concluded there is a “predicted risk of elevated lead levels in blood among children consuming venison shot with lead ammunition.”

The study also noted that there have been no confirmed cases of elevated lead levels caused from consuming venison and that there is also a wide variation in the potential amount of lead in a venison meal. It concluded that the issue is an “indeterminate public health hazard.”

Tiny fragments of lead

The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies meat lockers. But neither the USDA nor the Food and Drug Administration regulates lead levels in donated venison meat because it is not being commercially sold.

The FDA does, however, set lead levels in products such as fruit juice. It recently proposed lowering the allowable amount of lead in apple juice from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb and to 20 ppb for other fruit juices.

Mike Evinger, co-owner of Mike’s Meats in Knoxville, Iowa.

Mike Evinger, owner of meat locker Mikes Meats in Knoxville, Iowa, said During deer hunting season, he sets aside one day a week to process up to about 500 pounds of venison. About 100 pounds of that goes toward the HUSH program.

Evinger believes he does his best to reduce chances of lead getting through the process by making generous cuts around the wounded areas of the deer and even going so far as to reject any that have too much trauma.

“It seems like every year we will get some caught up in that grinder,” Evinger said of lead fragments. “I mean, we cut our meat up pretty fine. We don’t leave big chunks, and it still gets by us.”

Studies, including one in Minnesota, have found lead ammunition can fragment up to 18 inches from the wound and be as tiny as a grain of sand, needing an X-ray to help detect. The state X-rays packages of shot-harvest venison meat after it has been processed to discard any visible lead-contaminated meat.

“The last six years, we averaged about 10%,” said Nicole Neeser, division director of the dairy and meat Inspection Division at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “That’s still a very significant amount of meat that’s getting thrown away because it has lead particles in it.”

As a state-managed program, Neeser believes donated venison should be held to the same standard as food that consumers would purchase from a grocery store.

“We are working with a product that’s going to what I would say could be a very vulnerable population.” Neeser said, “Folks that are visiting shelves and maybe immunocompromised, young children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, where the effects of lead definitely could be very significant.”

Lead-free ammo

Pete Eyheralde, of , Iowa, calls a turkey on Friday, April 22, 2022, at Quercas Wilderness Area in Oskaloosa.(Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The leaves crunch on the forest floor as Pete Eyheralde takes a few steps and then scratches the ground with his right foot to mimic a hen hunting for food. This is one of the ways he moves through the forest to attract a turkey when hunting.

Eyheralde, who lives in Lucas County, made the switch to non-lead ammunition more than a decade ago. While conservation of wildlife is his primary reason for using copper slugs, the switch is also a way to eliminate health risks to his family.

“You don’t hear about people ending up in the hospital from eating lead from venison or something,” Eyheralde said. “But at the same time, why take a risk if you don’t have to?”

Pete Eyheralde, of Lucas County, Iowa, has switched to lead-free shot when he hunts. (Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In 2013, a petition was filed asking the Iowa DNR to require that shot-harvested deer donated to the HUSH program be killed with non-lead ammunition. The petition was eventually rejected, with the state saying Iowa’s department of health “has found no evidence linking human consumption of venison to lead poisoning.”

Eyheralde suggests finding more ways to educate hunters on the risks of using lead-ammunition. He thinks donation programs could be encouraging hunters to try lead-free options.

“Maybe,” he said, “when they donate it say, ‘Hey, here’s a box of copper slugs.’”

Unleaded is a joint investigation by The Missouri Independent and the Midwest Newsroom exploring the issue of high levels of lead in children in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Do you have a question for us or a story to share? Email: [email protected], nsa[email protected] or [email protected].

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Samantha Horton
Samantha Horton

Samantha Horton is a reporting fellow with NPR Midwest Newsroom and the Missouri Independent. She most recently spent four years covering business and the economy for Indiana Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a reporter with Side Effects Public Media and WNIN. Her work has won awards, including a Regional Edward R. Murrow, and has been featured on NPR.

Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.