This is Lead Week on this blog.
Here’s a summary of points made by this blog, this week, on the subject of lead in food. I spent a considerable chunk of my life as a scientist so I am reasonably happy reading the scientific evidence on this subject although some of it is certainly unfamiliar territory to me. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I have written so much about lead in food this week – what if I slipped up and got it wrong? But nothing written here has been seriously challenged through the week on any factual basis. There’s been a bit of sniping by shooting interests but that’s been it really.
Lead is a poison.
We have removed lead from paints, water pipes, fishing weights, and most significantly from petrol. All of these changes were opposed by vested interests at the time and no-one is asking for those changes to be reversed these days (see here, here, here, here)
Symptoms of high lead levels are various.
Consumption of one game meat meal per fortnight (of small game such as pheasants, grouse, pigeons, partridges, shot with lead shot) will reduce child IQ by 1 point.
An expert group, whose existence is partly down to me when I worked at the RSPB, and on which I sat until I left the RSPB, has produced a report whose findings have been in the public domain for months, even though Defra is mysteriously sitting on the actual report. The findings of that group recommend that lead ammunition should be phased out as:
- Safer alternatives to lead ammunition are now available and being improved and adapted all the time for use in different shooting disciplines. There is considerable experience from other countries where change has already been undertaken.
- There is no evidence to suggest that a phase out of lead ammunition and the use of alternatives would have significant drawbacks for wildlife or human health or, at least, none that carry the same scale of risks as continuing use of lead; though there are procedural, technical and R&D issues still to work on and resolve.
- There is no convincing evidence on which to conclude that other options, short of replacement of lead ammunition, will address known risks to human health, especially child health
The UK government agreed at an international meeting in Quito in autumn 2014 to phase out the use of lead ammunition in three years – and has, as yet, not done a thing.
Countries such as Denmark banned the use of lead ammunition a couple of decades ago – shooters wouldn’t want it back.
There are no real problems for shooters in switching to ammunition which is non-toxic and which avoids all these harmful impacts.
2. Game meat on sale to the public has high levels of lead
Previous studies, including in the UK, have shown that game meat shot with lead ammunition (bullets or pellets) have high lead levels. These are caused by tiny fragments of lead coming off the ammunition as it passes through the flesh of the shot mammal or bird and distributing themselves widely in the meat. Removing the lead pellets from a shot Pheasant, partridge, grouse etc does not remove the high lead levels – leaving them in would have increased the lead levels measured in previous studies and in this one.
Adopting one meal a week of lead-shot game such as Pheasants, partridge or grouse will increase the average person’s dietary lead intake about seven-fold. This increase is enough to increase blood pressure, the risk of chronic kidney disease, the risk of spontaneous abortion and to reduce the IQ of children. There are tens of thousands of adults who eat more than one lead-shot game meal a week and in their families so will many children. The shooting industry promotes game as a healthy option and does not highlight the health risks of lead. Supermarkets are selling game meat in their stores and are not highlighting the health risks of lead.
To highlight these issues, which are well known to the game shooting industry, and well documented in science, I purchased 40 frozen Red Grouse from Iceland Foods stores. Iceland’s boss, Malcolm Walker, is a keen shooter and Iceland had announced that they would start selling frozen grouse back in the summer. I contacted Iceland back then and pointed out the fact that they were likely to be selling meat to the public with high lead levels (and that there were other issues about the sustainability of grouse meat production). Iceland Foods produced what I consider a misleading and complacent information sheet on their website but did not reply directly to my comments.
So I became a customer of Iceland Foods and bought some of their Red Grouse meat and got it tested for lead levels. The measured lead levels were high – some were very very high – and were in line with previous studies (though on the higher side). More than three quarters of the lead levels measured in Iceland Foods’ grouse meat would have been illegal if found in beef, pork, chicken etc where there is a level set (Maximum Reside Level) above which meat is illegal. Over a third of the grouse meat samples contained ten times the MRL for lead. Two samples contained very very high lead levels: one of 168 times the MRL and the other of 3699 times the MRL. Overall, the lead levels in these 40 samples of grouse meat were 100 times the MRL.
Iceland Foods has not responded to my questions on why they sold this grouse meat and whether they intend to continue to sell grouse meat with very high lead levels.
Other supermarkets have responded and have said they will look into the issue. They should not have to look very far as they should already know about it. The results of the tests of these 40 Red Grouse are in line with previous studies and would be expected to be similar for other game meat such as Pheasant, partridge, duck and Woodpigeon. If supermarkets selling game meat do not respond with their views on the subject then I will name and shame them on this blog. If they do respond, then I will post their responses.
3. The report of the Lead Ammunition Group
The matters discussed in this blog will have been reviewed and discussed in the report of the Lead Ammunition Group which spent five years (rather too long!) looking at human health and wildlife health issues of the use of lead ammunition. That report was sent to Defra eight months ago and has not been published by Defra. The long delay in publication is scandalous.
The Lead Ammunition Group should consider putting their full report in the public domain themselves and shaming Defra for keeping their report secret. The findings of that report are publicly available, but not the evidence review on which they are based. The publicly available list of findings ends with this one:
Liz Truss talks a lot about science and evidence bases but has kept secret the LAG report for very nearly eight months. The LAG report should be published immediately, in fact it should have been published last summer.