FSA advice on eating game

Yesterday afternoon the Food Standards Agency (FSA)  published revised guidance on eating game shot with lead.

It starts: ‘The Food Standards Agency is advising people that eating lead-shot game on a frequent basis can expose them to potentially harmful levels of lead. The FSA’s advice is that frequent consumers of lead-shot game should eat less of this type of meat.

This seems very sensible to me.

There are three main ‘shooting’ organisations involved with commenting on this issue and the issue of lead gunshot and wildlife poisoning: BASC, GWCT and the utterly horrendous Countryside Alliance.

Before we move on to their views and responses let me just say that I am proud of the part played by the RSPB (when I worked for them and subsequently) on the lead issue.  The RSPB has studied the subject, adapted to the science, carried out science and informed decision-makers and the public about the facts of the matter.  For example, several years ago, when I was still an RSPB employee, the RSPB, after field trials, switched to using copper bullets for deer culling on its land, partly because much of the venison from that deer culling entered the human food chain. Here are some references to that RSPB work here, here, here).

Here is something I wrote in my RSPB blog just over 3 years ago:

Now there aren’t lots of bullets and shotgun pellets flying around on RSPB nature reserves but we do some predator control (notably of foxes on some sites) and we do cull deer at a number of our nature reserves in order to protect the habitat from overgrazing.  Some of those deer carcasses are sold into the human foodchain.  Now although the Food Standards Agency assures us that there is little evidence that lead poisoning from consuming shot game is an issue in the UK, we feel that moving to non-toxic ammunition is a responsible and precautionary move for the good of people and wildlife – there are perfectly good non-lead alternatives to most ammunition which we have tested or are testing on our sites.  So, from this autumn, we are moving towards non-toxic ammunition being used on those RSPB sites where ammunition is used at all.

We are grateful to a number of representative shooting bodies with whom we have had detailed and frequent discussions on this subject over the last 14 months or so.  We know that others are thinking hard about this issue too.

The FSA has now caught up with where the RSPB was several years ago and I am proud that the RSPB did lead the way to some extent.

The WWT has played an even bigger role, particularly since Dr Debbie Pain, who is a world expert on lead and wildlife, moved from the RSPB to become WWT’s Conservation Director.   WWT has done great research and led (not lead) the debate.  Some of the work done by WWT should have been done, funded and promulgated by the shooting community but in their absence we all owe WWT a big thank you for their role in elucidating human health and wildlife health aspects of use of lead ammunition.  Debbie, in particular has received lots of abuse and criticism from the shooting community about her role in this debate – abuse which has been completely unwarranted and disgraceful in my opinion.  WWT’s many excellent staff have carried out work of the highest standard and for public good.  Their Chief Executive, Martin Spray, is to be congratulated on the role that his organisation has played and will continue to play in this subject.

You’ll notice that in my blog of just over three years ago I wrote that ‘we’ (the RSPB) had been talking to shooting people about this matter for more than 14 months – that takes us back to summer 2008.  It takes us back to this Conference on the subject of lead which was held in Boise, Idaho.  You can read the papers here and see that there was enough in that conference to raise alarm bells.  Representatives from the UK shooting community were present at that conference and, I believe, were just as shocked by the evidence for projectile fragmentation, high lead levels and wildlife impacts as were RSPB staff who attended.  And yet, since that time, my feeling is that the shooting community’s leaders, rather than leading, have stuck their heads in the sand (or somewhere else anatomically as dark) and done nothing.  The shooting community has been misled rather than led.

Even last week the Countryside Alliance was calling RSPB, WWT (and me) scare mongerers for carrying out scientific research, publishing it and then disseminating its findings.  Shame on them! I say again, shame on them!  The FSA advice mentioned above would never have emerged from the shooting community who are ultimately responsible for the health impacts warned against.

BASC, of whom I would have expected much better in the past, issued this statement.  It is mealy-mouthed and insipid.  It doesn’t say that anyone should take notice of this updated advice, instead it says that those people for which the advice is not relevant should not take notice of it!  Big deal!  BASC are further reprehensible for having carried out a survey of their members, probably not a ‘perfect’ survey (but what is?), of game consumption. BASC refuse to make the results of this survey public even though it must contain important information on the range of game ingestion amounts of that very community most likely to be affected by high lead intakes from game.

The Countryside Alliance which is the prime mover behind the ‘Game to Eat‘ campaign has known about the growing evidence of some potential health impacts of high game intake for years. They have pressed on regardless and bad-mouthed those who have researched the subject thoroughly. Whatever good things the CA might do, this episode has been a shameful one in my opinion.  They claim to be the voice of the countryside (they don’t speak for me) and yet they have ignored and spoken against a health risk which will affect their supporters more than their enemies.  If I were a gamekeeper with a young family I would be wondering what the CA and BASC had been up to for the last few years.  Human health is too important an issue for single-issue politics – such as the ‘future’ of shooting.  BASC has been supine but CA has actively muddied the waters.  Shame on the Countryside Alliance too!

GWCT has not said much about the issue – it should have done.  It parades its own opinion of its scientific excellence at every opportunity and yet has remained publicly quiet on this matter. Go to the GWCT website and put ‘lead’ into the search engine and find out what you get – not much. There are enough clever people in GWCT who understood the science who should have said ‘Hang on guys – there is a real issue here’ – but it appears that they didn’t.  In former days I think they would have done.  Sins of omission rather than sins of commission, but sins all the same.  Shame on you too GWCT!





19 Replies to “FSA advice on eating game”

  1. Does the FSA explain what they mean by ‘frequent’? It’s good that they have issued this advice, but would be better if they could have given quantities or frequencies as ‘frequent’ is open to interpretation or dismissal.

    1. Emma – I agree. It seems that one meal a week puts you in the high consumption category. There are, I am told, many in the shooting community who greatly exceed that intake. I would guess that gamekeepers and their families are the people who should pay most attention to this advice. I like game, pigeons and pheasants would be my favourites, but I would probably eat game more frequently if I knew it was shot with non-toxic ammunition.

    2. The “science bit” on the FSA link quotes the following quantities:

      “Lead levels are higher in smaller game (such as birds) that are killed with lead shot. Frequent consumers, for example those eating a portion (100g) of lead-shot game birds on a weekly basis, should be aware that this could increase their dietary exposure to lead by about four times.

      In larger game (for example, venison), where lead ammunition may be used, edible parts of the carcass are less likely to contain lead. Therefore, weekly consumption of a portion (120g) of lead-shot venison or other large game is less of a concern for adults. However, monthly consumption of larger game would have little effect on a person’s overall exposure to lead from food.”

  2. It is not clear to me how the lead gets into the meat. Obviously, if you swallow a shot-pellet, then you ingest lead! However, once shot, the bird (or indeed deer) being dead, will no longer have a circulation system, therefore, how could even particles of lead be carried around the corpse?

    I always believed that the lead/bird issue was mainly one of ingestion of shot-pellets from mud, etc., mainly by waterfowl while feeding and subsequent retention and grinding in the gizzard. Is this not so?

    1. David – welcome and thank you. There are two issues – at least! If you put ‘lead’ into the search engine on this blog you will find a series of posts.

      Lead getting into ducks etc – is ingested in mistake for grit and/or food. Grit 9and lead) is held in the gizzard to help grind down food and the accumulating lead poisons the duck (or other bird)

      Lead getting into you or raptors etc – remarkably, lead bullets and pellets fragment as they travel through the flesh of a ‘target’. The tiny fragments travel through a large part of the carcass. Even if you wisely remove pellets from any meat these small fragments cannot be seen or removed. You’d think that this would be trivial – but it isn’t.

      The first problem comes from the ammunition that misses, the second from that which hits. The solution is to remove lead ammunition and use non-toxic alternatives (as several other places have already done).

  3. It occurs to me that for non-shooting people like myself, with a concern about this issue could we not wield a little consumer influence via the food chain? We are now quite familiar with provenance of local food being a key selling point – in a pub or restaurant for example. Next time you see wild game on a menu or a local butcher’s ask whether they know if it was shot with lead shot, and if so explain why you decline to choose it.

    1. Tim – thank you – good idea. And in your local supermarket? My local Waitrose is selling wood pigeon, pheasant and game casserole (pheasant, partridge, mallard and pigeon) at the moment.

      I do ask in restaurants about venison. I first ask which species of deer it is – and sometimes they simply don’t know (in which case I would never buy it). Then, assuming it is red deer, I ask whether it is farmed or shot, and if shot I then ask whether it was shot with lead or non-toxic bullets. I haven’t found anyone who can answer the ammunition question yet.

    1. Wendy – yes I saw that. How terrible. It’s never-ending this toll of illegal persecution.

  4. Mark, I am sure that to an extent you are missing the point! You are very bright and you are very persuasive, and no doubt correct. Legislation is one (very important) option, however I am fairly sure that legions of shooters will go ‘non toxic’ with your arguements. I will, I know others will. It reminds me of the debate to release salmon rather than kill them, now people in the know release salmon.
    Please do not think all shooters are idiots! I have plans a foot that I hope you will approve of!

  5. It’s a great shame that the FSA advice has received so little publicity – it does’t even appear on the NHS Choices list of foods to avoid in pregnancy.

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