FSA advice on game 'overly cautious'

The Countryside Alliance has branded the Food Standards Agency's (FSA) advice to people who consume large amounts of lead-shot game to cut back on their consumption, as "overly cautious".

The advice to cut back in order to limit exposure to potentially harmful levels of lead follows a study run by the Scottish Food Standard Agency (SFSA) to identify people who are high consumers of game meat, such as those who work in the game industry who regularly eat lead-shot game once a week throughout the season, and how they prepare lead-shot game meat as this can affect the levels of lead consumed.

FSA director of food safety Dr Alison Gleadle said the advice is targeted specifically at the small number of people who eat lead-shot game on a frequent basis. She said: "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.

However she said it was 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,” she said.

The FSA said there was no agreed safe level for lead intake and that independent scientific expert groups across the European Union advised that exposure to lead should be reduced “as far as possible”.

However, in a statement, the CA's shooting campaign manager David Taylor, said: “This advice is overly cautious and should not prevent anyone, other than those highlighted, from enjoying game this season. Lead exists in all food, and we hope that the FSA will review this advice in relation to all foodstuffs. They do not want to be responsible for the biggest food scare since BSE or the egg scandal.”

It pointed out that the advice is only aimed at those who eat large amounts of small game, such as pheasant and partridge, and does not include large game such as venison and sought to put the advice in context, saying: "By giving this advice, small game has been added to a list of many other foods, such as oily fish and tuna, which the FSA suggest should not be eaten more than twice a week. It also joins the myriad foods that woman are advised to avoid whilst pregnant."

Alexia Robinson, project manager of game promotion body Game-to-Eat had previously told Meatinfo that the Countryside Alliance (CA) had concerns that the report may not have undergone the same academic scrutiny that other reports must pass before publication. “In the absence of such review, the findings cannot be fully relied upon,” she said.

She said: “We of course welcome any precautionary approach to food safety, but we must always remain practical. It is important to note that lead, along with many other substances classified as toxic, exists in small quantities in virtually all food that is consumed, including potatoes and greens. No one risk should be viewed in isolation, potential risks from lead ingestion therefore exist with all types of food types if eaten to excess.”

The Countryside Alliance said that any investigation on lead-shot game must also take into account butchery and cookery methods involved in processing any game meat shot with lead ammunition, noting that it was usual for wound channels to be removed when processing meat and that forms of best practice may mitigate any potential risk to levels consistent with conventional meats.  

Robinson said that although, superficially, the recent report by the SFSA painted a bleak picture for lead ammunition, the truth of the situation was very different from the findings: “Game is enjoyed by many people across the country as a lean and flavourful alternative to other meats. After many years of game consumption, we are not aware of any person suffering from health-related issues from consuming game shot with lead ammunition.”

The Countryside Alliance supports the Lead Ammunition Group, an independent strategic group formed by Defra and the FSA to advise the government on the impacts of lead ammunition on wildlife and human health. This group is currently investigating the potential issues surrounding the use of lead ammunition in a risk-based approach.

The CA said: “No pre-emptive decisions should be made until this group, set up jointly by Defra and the FSA, has reported its findings.”

The FSA research was based on qualitative and quantitative interviews with experts in the field of wild-game meat preparation and lead-shot removal, as well as in-depth interviews with domestic and commercial respondents involved in wild-game preparation (i.e. butchers, game dealer, shooters and gamekeepers) about preparation and consumption. The quantitative research phase consisted of 200 semi-structured telephone interviews with high-level consumers of lead-shot wild-game meat.

The FSA advice was due to be released last week, after being scrutinised by the Lead Ammunition Group, but the FSA postponed publication while the advice was still being reviewed. Robinson today said that as far as she was aware, the FSA did not give their advice to the LAG before publishing the advice on Monday.