Warning pantry patrons of concerns with lead in donated venison

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Tenderloin galore: Venison prepared by Dana Garramone of Berkshire View Farm is wrapped and laid out on a table. Venison is labeled, according to federal regulations, with the type of meat it is, its weight, and where it was processed.

It is a busy time of year for the Venison Donation Coalition, with both hunting season and the holidays underway. The organization, based in Bath in Steuben County, works to have hunters donate deer they don’t use to be processed and sent to food pantries across the state.

However, concern has grown from advocates of green bullets that lead ammunition can contaminate donated venison without any warning to the consumer.

Michael DiBenedetto, a volunteer with the Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society in Oneonta, Otsego County, says he has been pushing for a label on donated venison for some time. He worked with agencies such as the state Department of Health, the Venison Donation Coalition, and the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.

DiBenedetto says that two weeks ago a health department representative told him there would be a notice offered alongside donated venison at food pantries that would warn consumers of the potential for the meat to be laced with lead and to describe the health risks of lead. DiBenedetto said that the department would pay for the notice and that it would only be offered alongside the meat rather than required so that the warning would not have to go through a state legislative process.

The state’s health department, responding to questions from The Enterprise, said in an email that it “is working closely with the Food Bank Association of New York State to develop a poster and tip card to address concerns about possible lead particles from lead bullets in some donated venison. This was the approach requested by the FBA since package labels may not be feasible in all food banks."

The state Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Conservation both warn online that lead fragments may be present in venison shot with lead ammunition, and that, although no illnesses have been associated with consuming wild game shot with lead ammunition, lead is a known neurotoxin.

DiBenedetto pushed for the warning card because, he said, it is unlikely food-pantry customers would consult DOH or DEC websites about the safety of the meat they receive.

When a lead bullet hits an animal, it fragments into hundreds of small pieces, peppering the meat, says DiBenedetto. The lead is not evenly distributed in all packages of the venison, he says, because it is found closest to where the animal was shot.

Game meat also doesn’t go through the same regulations as domestic meat, says DiBenedetto, meaning contamination may not be found.

JoAnn Dwyer of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York said she was not aware of any new label, but said that the current label was within the guidelines of the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. Venison is currently labeled, she said, with the type of meat it is, its weight, and the location where it was processed.

A representative from Rich’s Custom Meat Shop in Greenville, which processes venison for the food pantry, according to the Coalition’s website, said there is no process that seeks to remove potential lead contaminants.


The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Venison cuts are prepared by Dana Garramone of Berkshire View Farm in Hannacroix. Some of the meat will be donated to a local food pantry.


A one-woman slaughterhouse

Dana Garramone has been running Berkshire View Farm Custom Cut Meats for the past five years. She singlehandedly runs the slaughterhouse and butcher shop out of Berkshire View Farm, which she and her husband own in Hannacroix in Greene County, just north of the Albany County line.

Open year-round, Garramone said the shop processes cows, pigs, goats, sheep, rabbits, turkeys, ducks, geese, and venison provided by hunters.

“We process everything,” she said.

Last year, Garramone teamed up with the Venison Donation Coalition to process deer donated as meat for local food pantries. She didn’t receive any donated venison last year, she said, partly she believes from lack of advertising and partly due to many hunters thinking they must pay a fee for processing the deer. Garramone stressed that this is not the case.

“People don’t realize that,” she said. “They think they have to pay to process in order to do it.”

Garramone does the processing as a donation.

This year, hunters donated three deer. Garramone processes the venison for free, and, when the venison is ready, she calls a number provided by the Venison Donation Coalition to have someone sent to pick up the meat.

To process a deer for venison, it is skinned and washed, chilled in a cooler, and then cut up to be bagged, tagged, and stored in a freezer. Any flesh damaged by bullets is not used, Garramone said.

“Wherever it’s shot, we don’t use that,” said Garramone.

She added that she’s not a hunter, so she can’t say for certain where it’s best to aim when hunting deer, but said she believes the heart is a better spot. She added that she is not concerned about the rest of the meat being tainted with lead.

“It’s contained in where we shoot them,” she said.


The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Sliced up for venison: Dana Garramone carves meat off the carcass of a deer at Berkshire View Farm in Hannacroix in Greene County. The hole at the center of the carcass is where the bullet went through. “Wherever it’s shot, we don’t use that,” said Garramone.


Studies on lead

A consensus statement from a group of scientists published in 2013 by the University of California, Santa Cruz, concludes that lead ammunition poses a significant threat to those who consume game meat.

“Lead-based ammunition is a significant source of lead exposure in humans that ingest wild game, and hunters consuming meat shot with lead-based ammunition have been shown to have lead pellets/fragments in their gastrointestinal tract,” states the article, citing six different scholarly works published between 1977 and 2008.

Additionally, a 2008 health consultation by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry sampled lead in venison from food pantries across the state of Wisconsin. Lead was detected in 30 of 199 commercially processed samples, or 15 percent, and in 8 of 98 samples from hunters, or 8 percent. Because of the varying amounts of lead that could be in venison, the study declared the situation  an “indeterminate public health hazard.”

However, the study predicted that blood lead levels in children who consumed contaminated meat would vary between 3.5 and 34 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, depending on the rate and amount of lead-tainted meat consumed.

Experts use 5 micrograms per deciliter as a cutoff for concern, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Donating venison in Minnesota

The Minnesota Hunter Harvested Venison Donation Program was created in 2007 by the state’s departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Dr. Nicole Neeser, Director of Dairy, Meat and Poultry Inspection, said that there were about three years before this in which a system of voluntarily donating venison was in place, but did not have the the same regulations, and processors are now reimbursed $70 for every deer they process for donation.

Currently, Minnesota hunters must bring their deer to licensed processors, where they will fill out a form on where and how the animal was killed.

“There isn’t a whole lot the hunter needs to do,” said Neeser.

Processors are required to take a self-taught course on subjects such as food safety and handling, and the dangers of lead, upon signing up for the donation program.

Meat from a deer killed with arrows is sent directly to food shelves after processing, akin to New York State’s food banks or food pantries. Meat from a deer shot with bullets, however, is processed and packaged, and then stored until it can be picked up and brought to an inspection site by the state. The state X-rays the meat to detect lead or other metal particles left behind bullets, and rejects any contaminated meat. Meat that passes inspection is donated.

In order to encourage donations, processors are paid 20 dollars to reject “bad” carcasses that do not pass inspection.

Deer shot with steel and copper ammunition as well as lead are X-rayed.

“It’s still a fairly small proportion,” explained Neeser, of the green bullets.

Technically, explains Neeser, venison cannot be donated. The exception is this particular program because the state essentially pays for the venison donated and inspects it.

“There’s a lot of resistance to doing that at all,” said Neeser, explaining that there’s an idea the venison should be immediately donated rather than held and inspected.

“What we found is that 5 or 10 percent would come contaminated with metal fragments,” said Neeser. “That’s pretty significant, and it’s been consistent year to year,” she later added.

Neeser said the program faces a variety of challenges in gathering enough venison, as the number of deer brought in for donation may depend on the deer population and state deer hunting limits, as well as processors worrying about joining for fear of being liable for tainted meat. But she added that those looking to donate shouldn’t be discouraged.

“Overall, I think it’s been a good program,” she concluded.


DiBenedetto believes hunters resist switching to non-lead ammunition because they are unsure of what information is accurate about the potential dangers of lead bullets or shot. He says that hunters also may feel a push to switch from lead bullets is an attack on their Second Amendment rights or is from an anti-hunting agenda.

DiBenedetto also believes that a ban on lead ammunition in hunting, such as one that will take effect in California in 2019, will be ineffective. This is because hunters may simply not follow this ban, and continue to buy lead ammunition that will be provided for uses such as range shooting.

“You’re out alone in the woods; no one knows what kind of ammo you’re using,” he said.

DiBenedetto believes that, instead of a ban, the best method to reduce the use of lead in hunting is outreach.

More Regional News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.