Last updated on 8 October 2012

Advice to frequent eaters of game shot with lead

pheasant

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 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 system.

FSA Director of Food Safety Dr Alison Gleadle said: ‘This advice is targeted specifically at the small number of people who eat lead-shot game on a frequent basis. To minimise the risk of lead intake, people who frequently eat lead-shot game, particularly small game, should cut down their consumption. 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 system.

‘It’s important to remember that not all game is shot with lead. Generally, the large game sold in supermarkets is farmed and will have no or very low lead levels. Our advice is not applicable to consumers of such meat. People unsure about whether their game has been shot using lead ammunition should ask their supplier for information.’

This advice has been based on a study of consumers of wild game, conducted by the FSA in Scotland, and pre-existing data on lead levels in these types of food in the UK.

There is no agreed safe level for lead intake. Independent scientific expert groups across the European Union advise that exposure to lead should be reduced as far as possible.

Science behind the story

Lead occurs naturally, but human industrial activity and uses have also contributed to its presence in the environment. Food is the major source of human exposure to lead. Lead accumulates in the body and affects the developing central nervous system in young children. It may also have an impact on the cardiovascular systems and kidneys of adults.

The levels of lead in game that has been shot with lead ammunition are higher than the average levels found in other meats (including farmed game and wild game shot with alternative ammunition).
Likely intakes of lead will be affected by the size of the game; meat nearer the wound may contain more lead; and cooking with acidic ingredients, such as wine, vinegar or tomatoes, can cause the lead to dissolve and make it easier for the human body to absorb.

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.

Maximum limits have been set in the European Union (EU) for lead in various foods and will be subject to review. The European Food Safety Authority recently indicated that levels of lead in food in general in the EU are beginning to fall due to continuing efforts to bring them down.

Pregnant women or women trying for a baby are still advised to minimise their exposure to lead.