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Work begins to battle venison scare

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. - Education could help dissipate concern about lead in venison meat, officials of seven Midwest states decided Wednesday.

Deer hunters could be educated about how to best shoot deer, how to field dress the carcass and what kinds of bullets to use.

Meat processors could be shown how to remove potentially dangerous lead and shown that ground meat could pose more of a hazard than other cuts.

The public can learn how to spot lead in meat and discover ways to avoid lead poisoning problems.

Those and other ideas came from wildlife, health and agriculture officials - and hunting community leaders - from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Missouri meeting in Bloomington. They decided to work together so deer hunters and others throughout the region hear the same message.

The lead in venison scare began in March when a Bismarck, N.D., doctor contacted the North Dakota Health Department with concerns about lead fragments in ground deer meat. The doctor took X-rays of 95 ground venison samples from food pantries, with 53 showing signs of metal.

The doctor's findings convinced most Midwest food pantries to halt venison distribution, a program that just recently began to expand.

A Minnesota Agriculture Department study showed nearly a third of the food pantry venison samples it checked contained lead, a substance scientists say is dangerous to humans.

Shock waves shot through the hunting community, with concerns about food safety mingling with worries that the controversy would reduce hunting.

"We have until November to figure out the ramifications of it," said Mark Johnson of the Grand Rapids-based Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

Midwest state officials need to decide before this fall's deer hunting season whether they will continue programs that encourage hunters to donate venison to food pantries, which provide food to needy families.

While officials draw up education plans, they also expect to continue studying the situation.

Dave Schad, Minnesota fish and wildlife director, said there is little information about the dangers of lead in meat. His Department of Natural Resources office plans to conduct tests this summer to see how much lead bullets spread when deer are shot.

In North Dakota, federal Centers for Disease Control officials are testing blood in 700 people to see if those who eat meat from deer shot with lead bullets show higher concentrations of lead.

In the meantime, officials of the seven states who met Wednesday agreed to work together on education programs.

One suggestion is to encourage meat processors to not process meat with obvious excessive bullet damage.

George Vandel of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department suggested that hunters be trained to take better shots, so they hit deer in places where bullets are less likely to fragment.

"Don't shoot a running deer," he said.

Sandi Washek of the North Dakota Health Department said even veteran hunters, who say they never have become ill from eating venison, could be educated.

"This is what lead does to you," she said hunters need to be told.

Stacy Eberl, also of the North Dakota Health Department, said many venison eaters never have bitten into a bullet fragment. However, bullets may disintegrate upon hitting a bone and not be noticed, she said.

Education plans need to be finished soon because most Midwestern states are wrapping up their printed materials for the fall hunting season. Some said they probably would have to just refer to Web sites for information.

"This is the start of a long-term discussion," Schad said.

Johnson said the meeting produced a lot of progress, especially since all area states are working together on a similar message.

No one at the meeting appeared to lean toward banning lead bullets, although Schad said he expects talk of that to crop up in the Minnesota Legislature.

However, since copper bullets - a prime alternative to lead - cost more than three times as much, hunting advocates are concentrating on how to make sure meat is safe from lead poisoning.

While deer are the most common big game in the Midwest, meat from animals such as bear, elk and moose also could be affected by lead.

Hunting experts such as Johnson say they never have heard of anyone being harmed by eating venison containing lead, but the scare threatens their sport.

"People get afraid," Johnson said.

If that scares away new hunters, Schad added, it has wide-spread implications.

There are too many deer in most Midwest states and if hunters do not thin the population, Schad said, they will become a bigger nuisance and danger, including causing more traffic accidents.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.