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Care suggested in eating deer meat

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ST. PAUL -- Hunting and health experts do not fully understand what dangers, if any, lead in deer meat may present, but with the deer hunting season about to open, Minnesota officials say there are precautions hunters should take.

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However, state officials are resuming a venison donation program for needy Minnesotans after it was canceled abruptly last year over meat safety fears. Since ground venison appears more likely to contain lead contamination, food shelves will distribute only whole cuts this year.

Health and Department of Natural Resources officials say pregnant women and children younger than 6 should not eat meat from deer killed by lead bullets.

Federal officials are conducting a study in North Dakota to determine what dangers lead fragments in meat may pose. Until those results are known, Minnesota officials decided to make suggestions, but are not placing restrictions on hunters.

"We've long known venison is a great source of lean, healthy protein," said Dave Schad, director of the DNR Fish and Wildlife Division. "Our research will help hunters ensure that's exactly what they are serving themselves and others."

That research, conducted during the summer, confirmed that both rapid-expansion and controlled-expansion bullets with exposed lead can contaminate meat. However, bullets with copper covering lead do not have the same problem.

DNR officials did not recommend that hunters move to all-copper or copper-clad bullets, but said they wanted hunters to know those bullets could make meat safer.

"Evaluate your own circumstances, your own family situation, your own health," DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten said. "We have got a lot more research we are going to have to do."

The study, which DNR officials said was just a first step, showed muzzleloader bullets and shotgun slugs resulted in a less widespread distribution of lead than lead rifle bullets.

About 75 percent of deer taken during hunting season are killed by rifle bullets.

Lou Cornicelli, DNR's big game specialist, said the study showed that when lead rifle bullets were used, the two inches around the bullet wound contains fewer than half of the fragments. In some cases, lead fragments were found as far as 18 inches from where the bullet traveled.

The study found that bullets hitting bones, such as those in the hind quarter of an animal, tended to fragment more than those that struck another part of the body.

While the archery deer season started in mid-September, the first firearms season begins Saturday. That is when hunters whose names were drawn in a lottery may begin hunting deer without antlers in some parts of the state. The anterless season is designed to reduce deer population in certain areas. Other firearm seasons begin next month.

Last year, the DNR estimates, more than 480,000 took to the fields to hunt deer. They killed 260,000 animals.

The lead in venison scare began last 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 lead.

The doctor's findings convinced most Midwest food pantries -- and some elsewhere in the country -- to halt venison distribution.

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.

Ironically, many states last year expanded or began programs encouraging hunters to give excess venison to organizations that distribute food to the needy.

Safe venison tips

The DNR Tuesday issued tips for deer hunters who want to make sure venison is safe to eat:

  • Pregnant women and children younger than 6 should avoid venison from deer shot with lead bullets. Still, lead in venison has not been linked to any illnesses.
  • Non-lead and copper-encased lead bullets do not leave lead fragments, and shotgun slugs and muzzleloader bullets leave less lead in meat than lead rifle bullets.
  • Where the animal is shot affects how much lead travels. Shots in the hind-quarters, where heavy bones are located, result in the most widespread lead fragmentation. Hunters can pick better parts of the animal to shoot.
  • When animals are processed, meat should be "trimmed liberally" around the bullet holes. Some lead has been found as far as 18 inches from bullet channels.
  • Ground venison tends to contain the most lead.

For more information: www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/lead

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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.
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