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Lead fragments in game meat can be an added health risk for certain consumer groups

32/2011, 19.09.2011

BfR recommends that children, pregnant women, and women planning to have children not eat meat from game animals killed by hunters.

Wild boar and venison are among the foods most heavily contaminated with lead, in the same category as seafood, spices, and the viscera of farm animals. The main reason for this is that lead is normally used to make the bullets used by hunters to kill these animals. Lead is a toxic heavy metal that accumulates in the tissues of living organisms. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) recently carried out a study to determine the additional risk to health posed by the consumption of game animals shot by hunters. The result of this assessment shows that the meat in question often has high levels of lead contamination. Seeing that the amounts of lead contained in other foods is already relatively high in Germany, eating wild game on a regular basis could pose a serious threat to the health of consumers. According to BfR President Andreas Hensel, "consumer groups that eat game meat weekly, particularly families of hunters, face an increased risk. There is a particular threat to unborn children and children up to the age of seven, given that the absorption of only a very small amount of lead can result in serious damage to their health." With this in mind, small children, pregnant women, and women planning to have children should avoid eating wild game that was killed by hunters. For the majority of consumers, as long as they eat game meat only occasionally and in small amounts, the risk of a threat to their health as a result of additional lead intake is assessed as being negligible.

The fact that the bullets hunters use to shoot wild game are in most cases made of lead means that there are often numerous bits of this metal in the carcasses of the animals killed. On impact lead bullets tend to flatten and break up, creating fragments and fine particles that penetrate deeply into the surrounding muscle tissue where they are difficult to detect. BfR based its risk assessment with respect to lead contained in the meat of game animals killed by hunters on new data regarding lead content in food as well as on a new assessment approach put forward by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). It takes into account new data and research, according to which the amount of lead absorbed from staple foods such as grain products, fruit, and vegetables is already high. Since no exposure threshold has ever been established for lead and, as such, no dosage can be indicated that would be known not to have a negative effect, the amount of lead absorbed should be kept as small as possible.

High concentrations of lead in humans can reduce the ability of the body to form new blood cells as well as damage internal organs and the central nervous system. Lead also accumulates in the bones. In adults it is the kidneys that react most sensitively to chronic exposure to lead. In children up to the age of seven it is the nervous system, posing a particular threat to infants and small children. High levels of exposure can result in irreversible nerve damage, brain disorders, and loss of intelligence. The same applies to unborn children. The formation of the nervous system is a particularly delicate phase in the development of a foetus. If a pregnant woman eats food with high levels of lead content just one time this can already have a negative effect on her child. This is why women who are planning to have children should keep the amount of lead they absorb as low as possible. During pregnancy a foetus may be exposed to more than just the amount of lead the mother takes in with the food she eats. If she fails to get enough calcium in her diet, lead stored in her bones will be released along with calcium needed for the foetus, creating additional lead exposure both for the foetus as well as for the mother.

Statistically speaking, people in Germany eat about two grams of game meat per day (assuming they eat an average of one or two meals a year in which wild game is served). In these amounts the additional intake of lead with meat from wild game animals is insignificant in toxicological terms compared with the amount of lead contained in the beverages, grain products, fruit, and vegetables that are consumed on a regular basis. The situation changes in the case of people who frequently eat wild game, as is often the case with hunters and their families. Studies carried out in Switzerland have shown that up to ninety servings of game meat are eaten in these households per year. The eating habits in hunter families in Germany are likely to be similar. Since the wild animals these families eat are killed with lead bullets, this would result in a significant amount of additional lead in their diet. In these cases there would be a major threat to the health of unborn children and children under the age of seven.

The consumption of game meat contaminated by lead bullets should definitely be avoided. Cutting out large sections of meat around the bullet hole is not always enough to guarantee this. BfR is involved in research aimed at determining what material would be good for making bullets that would not contaminate game meat. The long-term objective is to allow game to be sold for human consumption only if the animals in question are killed with bullets that do not contain lead or, at the very least, bullets that do not contaminate the meat with lead or other any other undesirable material.

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises Germany's federal and state governments on matters relating to food, chemicals as well as product safety and conducts independent research on matters closely connected to its objectives in the field of risk assessment.




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