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Lead in venison: Keep risk in perspective

Are those who eat large amounts of venison at risk of lead poisoning? That was the question on the table [last] week as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) held a conference in Bloomington with natural resource officials from several Midwestern states.

The DNR first raised the concerns about lead after tests on venison donated to food shelves found lead fragments in nearly one out of five packages. Further tests using venison obtained from DNR employees, found lead fragments in a similar percentage of packages tested. Concerns about the impact of lead on those consuming venison has led the DNR to suspend its venison donation program to food shelves, a program that had shown plenty of promise as a means of encouraging hunters to take more deer, while providing quality meat to those in need.

Questions about the safety of deer meat are more than academic to many folks in our area, and that includes me and my family, whose red meat consumption consists mostly of venison. My take on the question is this: We face risks in everything we do. What’s important is to keep those risks in perspective. And on the long, long list of things that can kill us, or make us sick, the risk from lead fragments in venison must be well down towards the bottom.

As the DNR has acknowledged, they are unaware of so much as a single case of even mild lead poisoning stemming from consumption of venison. Humans have long existed with lead in their bodies. We all have it within us, and in most cases, it has no detectable effect. In higher concentrations, it can lead to a number of acute and chronic symptoms, including neurological effects, nausea, headaches, and fatigue, but there are a thousand other substances out there that can do the same thing.

Relative dangers
I don’t discount the potential risk, just as I don’t discount the potential risk posed from consuming deer infected by chronic wasting disease. But I’m not about to let such remote risks keep me or my family from eating a high quality meat that in many ways is healthier than commercially produced alternatives, like beef.

As always, risk is a relative thing. We’ve all heard the reports of unsanitary conditions at slaughterhouses, and the outbreaks of real, even fatal, illness from eating contaminated beef. We know that most beef is much higher in saturated fats than a wild food like venison and because most cattle are now raised in close quarters, they are routinely pumped full of antibiotics and other things that most of us probably shouldn’t consume. We know that the harmful environmental effects of industrial cattle farming are increasingly significant. Some scientists have even suggested that undetected prions in commercially-raised beef could be responsible for the rising prevalence of what is most often diagnosed in this country as Alzheimer’s disease, but could be evidence of the brain-wasting effects of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which is similar to mad cow disease.

So which represents the greater threat to human health? I know what I’d rather eat — it’s venison, hands down. If deer hunters are eating venison rather than industrially produced beef, they’re almost certainly better off, regardless of the risks posed by small amounts of lead.

It’s much the same issue with fish consumption. For years, the state’s Department of Health has put out fish consumption advisories for many lakes in our region due to the presence of mercury. While those advisories are still in effect, the health department recently revised its suggestions and is now recommending more fish consumption, because of the growing data showing the beneficial health effects of many of the other compounds found in fish.

In other words, it appears the health benefits of moderate, regular fish consumption may well outweigh the risks posed by mercury.

Doing a careful job of processing
If deer hunters should take anything from the revelations about lead, it’s to consider butchering their own deer, or taking it to a commercial processor that they know and can trust to do a careful job. It’s only human nature that we’ll take greater care when dealing with food we know we’ll be consuming. Given the lead concern, I know I’ll probably leave a bit more of the meat around the wound than I have in the past.

It’s good to be informed about such risks, and if we can reduce those risks by minor changes in our behavior, it just makes sense. I don’t subscribe to the mentality of those who fight or dismiss any new information that they don’t like, or find inconvenient. We’ve had way too much of that thinking in American society in recent years, and it’s harmful.

Yet we can’t go the other extreme, so often exhibited in the media, where every remote risk is turned into the newest scare of the week and the public isn’t provided the sense of perspective that is so critical in assessing relative risk. Let’s hope the DNR will use a little of that perspective as it decides where to go from here.

This article appeared in the weekly Timberjay newspapers in Northern Minnesota. It is reprinted with permission.

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