In a recent official statement, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) warned against the regular consumption of lead-shot game, such as pheasants, deer and grouse, in order to reduce exposure to potentially toxic levels of lead.

‘This advice is especially important for vulnerable groups such as toddlers and children, pregnant women and women trying for a baby, as exposure to lead can harm the developing brain and nervous systems’, said Dr Alison Gleadle, the FSA Director of Food Safety. Consumption prior to pregnancy might also be a hazard due to skeletal lead accumulation and mobilisation during pregnancy. Moreover, dietary lead intake is associated with lowered IQ, increase in systolic blood pressure and higher prevalence of cardiovascular and chronic kidney diseases.

The FSA defines high consumers of game meat or game offal as consumer groups who eat these foods once or twice weekly, yearlong.

Weekly consumption of more than 100g of lead-shot small wild game birds, such as duck, grouse, partridge and pheasant, considerably heighten dietary exposure to lead by about four times. The average level of lead in woodcock appears to be higher than in other game birds. The FSA reports that the cooking method also determines hazard levels: preparation of these game birds in an acidic medium — for instance, wine, vinegar and tomato sauce — causes tiny fragments of the lead pellets to dissolve, facilitating absorption by the human body.

According to the FSA’s findings, lead levels appear to be lower in larger game animals, like deer. The agency stated that weekly consumption of one 120g portion of these animals was ‘less of a concern for adults’. However, exposure to dietary lead will be elevated if meat in proximity to the wound channel or meat that is damaged by the bullet is habitually eaten. The FSA highlighted that its advice does not apply to consumers of large game sold in supermarkets as such meat comes from animals which are generally farmed and therefore, should not pose concern with regards to lead exposure.

‘People unsure about whether their game has been shot using lead ammunition should ask their supplier for information’, commented Dr Alison Gleadle.

The head of communication for the British Association of Conservation and Shooting (BASC), Christopher Graffius, maintained that those who consumed lead-shot game faced only minimal risks. He says that ‘there is no evidence of harm to those of us who eat game less than once every week. Compared with other meats wild game is low in fats and entirely natural, representing a healthy option to intensively reared products’.

In 2010, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published its opinion on lead in food: the EFSA indicated that dietary levels of lead in the European Union are declining, probably due to continuous efforts to lower them. However, due to its highly toxic properties, there are no safe levels for lead exposure, which should therefore be limited as much as possible, especially by pregnant women and those trying to conceive.