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Lead-in-meat ‘study’ unnecessarily alarmist
As much as it sounds like an April Fool’s gag, the news this week from North Dakota was serious as a funeral. Or medical malpractice.
The Associated Press reports that a North Dakota dermatologist and self-described “long-time hunter” found microscopic lead fragments in about 60 percent of the packages of ground venison he collected from local food pantries.
The story quotes the Bismarck dermatologist, Dr. William Cornatzer, as describing the fragments as “lead dust” and recommends that meat from deer shot with high-velocity lead bullets not be eaten.
State health officials subsequently told food pantries that received venison through the Sportsmen Against Hunter program to throw out the donated meat because of its alleged health implications.
In its story, which shock waves through wildlife agencies and hunters’ forums, the AP went on to describe the dire symptoms of lead poisoning, but reported that “no sickness has been reported from lead-tainted venison” in North Dakota.
This “study” has some profound implications.
Are we hunters really injecting poison in the meat we bring home to feed our families? If so, then we need to know how we can help stop the epidemic. Is this North Dakota study just the leading edge of a public-health and conservation tsunami that will change the way we hunt? Will we start viewing the succulent backstrap from last fall’s buck not as healthy, fat-, hormone- and antibiotic-free protein but as contamination that can cause “confusion, learning problems and convulsions… brain damage and death,” as the AP reports?
Coming on the heels of California’s ban on lead bullets in the historic range of the endangered California condor, this news report from North Dakota would be especially unsettling if it wasn’t so flimsy.
For starters, the source of the health scare is suspect, even if his motivations are pure. Dr. William Cornatzer is a dermatologist, not an epidemiologist. Plus, he is on the board of The Peregrine Fund, an Idaho-based non-profit dedicated to raptor conservation that has lobbied hard to ban lead from condor country. The group is holding a conference in May entitled “Ingestion of Spent Lead Ammunition: Implications for Wildlife and Humans” (www.peregrinefund.org/Lead_conference/). Is Dr. Cornatzer’s study designed to foment outrage over home-freezer contamination leading up to the conference?
Then there’s the scientific validity of the study itself. Cornatzer’s initial investigation found detectable levels of lead in 53 of the 100 one-pound packages of ground venison he tested, according to the AP. That’s significant, but is it replicable? A follow-up study by North Dakota’s state health department found lead in all five samples of venison it tested. Disturbing, yes. But not as disturbing as the actions of public-health officials who extrapolated from this tiny sample that all hunter-harvested venison should be discarded.
Then there’s the oh-really nature of this report. I’m no Butcher Shop CSI forensic analyst, but I have a very hard time imagining lead “dust” in the hindquarters of my lung-shot deer. I have cut out jellied, bloodshot meat from many a front shoulder, but have difficulty believing that a bullet that passed through left debris in the backstraps or in the rump roasts.
But then, I butcher all my game myself whenever possible. For me, it’s the satisfying conclusion to a successful hunt, cutting and wrapping and labeling packages of protein that will sustain my family for the next year. And I am very careful that the meat I preserve isn’t contaminated with hair, dirt or blood.
I don’t like taking my meat to commercial butchers because I don’t know how they will handle it. Will they take the same care I do to trim off bloodshot meat? Can I be sure I’m getting my own meat back? Do they grind unblemished meat with some that may be compromised? Most butchers do a top-notch job, but some probably cut corners. Did the Bismarck samples come from shoddy meat shops? Maybe a follow-up study should look at practices in commercial meat shops and not implicate hunters who kill animals with lead bullets.
Or maybe a study should investigate the prevalence of lead poisoning in hunters’ families. As in the very real lead-paint epidemic of the 1960s, there should be evidence of the problem in the population.
If I’m poisoning my family, I want to stop. And if bullet-spraying hunters are a public-health menace, let’s discover the depth of the problem and systematically resolve it. But I want to make those decisions based on peer-reviewed science, not alarmist do-gooding.
- Andrew McKean