Is game meat that has been shot using lead pellets or bullets safe to eat? Philip Bowern investigates the latest food scare and wonders if it is more of an attack on shooting.
What are we to make of the warning this week that eating game killed using lead shot should be avoided by pregnant women and the very young and that eating pheasant, wood pigeon, venison or wild boar – which will inevitably have been obtained as a result of shooting using lead ammunition – could be hazardous to us all?
Many will conclude this is one of those "non-problems" that periodically crop up, creating confusion and generating far more heat than light. The sensible will conclude it can be filed away under the heading: "Nothing much to worry about."
If there are risks attached to eating shot game you would have to eat so much of it to suffer harm – even using the anti-lead lobby's own figures – that virtually no one is in any real danger. Reports of lead poisoning among the general population as a result of eating game are virtually non-existent – and lead shot has been in use for centuries.
A far bigger risk is that as a result of this scare story – which combines research from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Food Standards Agency – the ordinary shopper will be put off picking up pheasant or partridge in the butcher's or accepting one as a gift from a shooting friend or neighbour. As a result they will be missing out on healthy, low-fat food.
The popularity of game has been growing in recent years but it still represents a tiny fraction of the meat most people consume. The small print of the research produced by the anti-shooting WWT proves no more than that consuming game meat in modest quantities won't do you any harm – and probably quite a bit of good.
Christopher Graffius, head of communications for the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, rightly said the risks of eating lead-shot game "should not be exaggerated".
"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," he said.
In other words most people – even people who shoot regularly and eat pheasant and other wild game shot using lead cartridges – have little to fear. The dangers of dropping down dead with a heart attack from consuming less healthy food is clearly a bigger hazard among the general population than tucking into a pheasant once a week in the shooting season.
But the warning about eating game that might contain fragments of lead is not the only front on which the war with the shooting enthusiast is being fought on this issue. The WWT has put out research alleging water birds are dying from ingesting lead – in the form of spent shot and fishing weights – despite a ban being put in place in 1999 on using lead ammunition when shooting over water and long-standing restrictions on lead used by anglers.
The WWT, among others, wants lead banned outright and is using its latest research to ramp up the pressure. Many in the shooting community are bitterly opposed to such a move, however, on the grounds of both the efficiency of lead ammunition and cost.
According to the WWT, the ban on using lead over water is not working. One in three water fowl tested had been poisoned by lead in a recent sample with one in ten killed by the heavy metal, the charity claims.
The WWT's solution is a complete ban on lead shot, wherever shooting is taking place. Another approach, however, might be proper enforcement of the law to ensure non-toxic shot is always used in areas where water birds might pick up spent shot. Lead, in bullets and shotgun cartridges, is an extremely effective and relatively cheap material.
The main alternative at a comparable price – steel – is less effective at range and is generally considered more dangerous since it is harder and can ricochet.
Steel shoot is also unusable in many older guns because of the risk of damaging the barrels. Non-toxic metals that mimic lead's efficiency are many, many times more expensive.
Bismuth, one of the most popular alternatives to lead for use in shooting waterfowl like duck and geese can cost five or six times more than lead.
Chef and keen shot Marco Pierre White summed up the feelings of many in the shooting fraternity. "People have been shooting with lead for generations, why would you want to change it? The bottom line is that they are trying to ban shooting," he said.
Others, however, might be simply worried another food scare will mean game meat is off the menu – with no good reason.
Sir Peter Scott, the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, gained his passion for waterfowl and the wild places they inhabit with a gun in his hand. He was a keen shot – using cartridges loaded with lead – for many years, only giving up in later life to concentrate solely on conservation.
Would he want those who shoot and who love the marsh and its waterfowl as much as he did to be priced out of their sport and, as a consequence, for those wild places and the wildfowl to lose their greatest supporters and champions?