Last year, hunters donated nearly 40 tons of venison to Minnesota food shelves. But when state Agriculture Department officials tested some of that meat last spring, they found varying amounts of lead contamination from fragmented bullets.
The state ordered food shelves to destroy some 16,000 pounds of venison.
At the Hubbard County Food Shelf in Park Rapids, that's frustrated director Dave Long. He says venison is a plentiful source of protein for people in need.
"We gave it out as an extra last year and people were grateful for it," he said. "A very few people turned us down. Some said, 'Well, gee, we love venison.'"
This year, food shelf patrons in Park Rapids and some other communities won't get any venison.
That's because local meat processors facing tighter state regulations decided to drop out of the program.
Last year, there were 72 processors in Minnesota that prepared venison for food shelves. This year, that number has dropped to fewer than half that. In northwestern Minnesota, there are only five processors that will take donations from hunters in a 21-county area.
Dave Long says people have been eating venison for centuries and he thinks it's safe.
"When you take into consideration that there has never been one reported case in the history of Minnesota venison that they have attributed lead poisoning to, it boggles my mind," Long said.
At his downtown butcher shop in Park Rapids, Dale Greenlee processes about 500 deer every year. But this year he won't be doing it for the food shelf. He says it's too much of a hassle.
The state requires processors to attend a five-hour training course. Venison samples must be X-rayed by the state. Processors can no longer prepare ground venison for food shelves, only whole cut pieces of meat.
And Greenlee says he'd heard that processors wouldn't get paid if lead is found in the meat.
He says he couldn't afford to take that risk.
"When the bullets fragment, you can't find every little piece of lead in that deer," Greenlee said. "We pull out every piece we can, but we just can't get it all."
It turns out processors do get paid -- $70 per animal -- regardless of whether lead is found in the meat.
A spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture says some processors may have been misinformed due to inaccurate information posted on the agency's Web site. He says that mistake has since been corrected.
There hasn't been much scientific research into the potential dangers of lead fragments in wild game. But a new study was released this week by the North Dakota Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
It found that people who eat wild game harvested with lead bullets appear to have higher levels of lead in their blood than people who don't.
As a result, North Dakota health officials are recommending that pregnant women and children under six should not eat meat from deer killed with lead-based ammunition. High levels of lead exposure can cause miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as learning disabilities and kidney damage in young children.
That health advisory was already in place in Minnesota.
Nicole Neeser, who works with the state Department of Agriculture and oversees food safety, says tightened regulations on the venison donation program could result in less meat for food shelves. But she says it's better the state errs on the side of caution.
"What we know about lead in anything is that it's harmful," she said. "So we're trying to find a middle ground here to continue this program, but yet take into account that important information that eating lead can be harmful, and the fact that we did find lead in venison." So should all this talk of lead contamination worry hunters?
Not necessarily, says Mark Johnson, who heads the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. Johnson says people who eat venison should use their own judgement. And hunters can make some changes in the way they hunt.
"If you're worried about it, and that's a big if, then just don't use a ballistic tip bullet that tends to fragment," Johnson explained. "Use a copper-bonded bullet or an all-copper bullet or use a shotgun slug or a muzzle loader, where you have a lot less opportunity for fragmentation."
Even though about half-a-million people are expected to hunt deer this season, it's likely that fewer pounds of venison will find their way to people in need.