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JAMA Forum Archive, 2012-2019: Health policy commentary from leaders in the field
JAMA Forum

Policy and Culture Change: Lead Contamination of Meat

Michael DiBenedetto walked into the food pantry he supports in Delaware County, New York, and was taken aback to see that venison was in the freezer. Because Delaware County is a rural area with 15.3% of the population and 29% of children living in poverty, hunting and food pantries can be essential to families in need. Generous hunters often donate venison to food pantries, knowing that it’s an excellent source of protein.

Image: mj0007/Thinkstock

But DiBenedetto, a retired high school teacher who grew up hunting in the area, knew that the area’s population of golden eagles, along with bald eagles, have been poisoned from eating the carcasses of deer and other wildlife that had been killed with lead bullets. But it isn’t just these birds that are harmed by lead bullets. Many hunters either don’t know that their lead bullets can result in lead poisoning or they don’t believe the science that shows that even low levels of lead in human blood can be harmful. And the pantries and families who eat the meat are often unaware that it could be harmful.

Hunters could use nonlead bullets that actually perform as well or better than the lead ones.  But the pushback from some of the hunters moved DiBenedetto to explore policy changes that have been just as challenging to accomplish. The issue is wrapped up in the culture that surrounds any issue related to guns in the United States.

Policy Options

It’s been estimated that 93% of the 13.7 million hunters in the United States use “shrapnel-inducing” lead bullets. California’s condor population was on the verge of extinction from lead bullets, so the state banned them in 2013 for hunting, the only state to do so. But hunting associations and the National Rifle Association (NRA) have opposed such bans in other states. On the last day of the Obama administration, the director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued an order that banned lead bullets for hunting on some federal lands, but it was rescinded by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke shortly thereafter.

DiBenedetto has worked with others to demonstrate that lead bullets leave microscopic splinters of lead along the bullet’s path, contaminating more than the immediate area around what’s left of the bullet. Some hunters have paid attention to this work and no longer use lead bullets. A website, Hunting With Nonlead, includes the science that supports getting rid of lead bullets. Cost considerations have been a barrier, but premium lead bullets are comparable in price to some nonlead options.

DiBenedetto explored another policy solution in the form of state regulations. One potential option is testing the venison for lead, which food pantries argue is cost-prohibitive—and in fact, during a recent visit, DiBenedetto discovered that a local pantry had removed all of the venison from the freezer because the it lacks the resources to test the meat and was concerned about liability and harm to the families it serves.

A second possible regulatory option, labelling the venison as possibly containing lead, may scare families from using the venison or pantries from stocking it. The Food Bank Association of New York State encourages donations of venison. Such donations are to “be clearly tagged, labeled, or marked” as “not for sale,” and to specify the type of meat, the license number of the hunter or deer carcass number, and other information, but no statement about the type of bullet used is required.

Despite repeated documentation of contamination in pantry venison and warnings that “there is no safe level of lead in blood,” people have argued that the food needs of poor families take precedence. Even New York state has argued that the risk is likely minimal, but it recommends the use of nonlead bullets. The NRA has opposed restricting donations of venison to food pantries, arguing that there is little documented risk of lead poisoning.

Although New York has not assessed the risk, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of venison donated to food pantries in Wisconsin found that 15% was contaminated with lead. North Dakota found that more than 50% of ground venison designated for food pantries was contaminated. In 2008, it conducted a study of 740 residents of varying ages, 80% of whom consumed at least 1 type of wild game regularly and had significantly increased levels of lead in their blood, although well below the 10-mg/dL level at which the CDC recommends case management. The risk to hunters, Native Americans who hunt with lead bullets, and others led to a CDC call for renewed efforts to reduce childhood lead exposure and a consensus statement by concerned scientists in 2013 that called for reducing and eventually eliminating lead-based ammunition.

Culture and Policy

Policy change is steeped in politics, and our politics are steeped in “cultural cognition,” which the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School describes as the tendency of people to shape  their beliefs (such as whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to conform with “values that define their cultural identities.” These identities can be difficult to change.

Certainly, the long-standing values surrounding the right to bear arms are rooted in our nation’s revolutionary history and the sanctity of individual freedoms. A culture of guns that some believe goes beyond the right ensconced in the Second Amendment has been reinforced by the NRA. From 2010 to 2014, the NRA donated more than $41 million in money or equipment to schools. The money was used for Junior ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corp), a program for military preparation and leadership development of youth; air guns; and rifles for sharpshooting training and competitions. The NRA recognized that the next generation’s endorsement of the importance of guns in our society is essential for perpetuating the culture—and the business interests—the organization represents.

The recent shooting of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has resulted in dramatic activism by a younger generation that holds the promise of shifting this gun culture. It has been remarkable to witness these youth calling for better gun control measures and a ban on semiautomatic weapons and bump stocks, while denying accusations that they are pawns for those who want all guns banned. While the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution is debated, and others argue about whether guns or bad people are to blame, the younger generation may be bringing a different cultural identity and set of values to bear on these debates—values that speak to the importance of reducing the risks of a gun culture that is resistant to change.

And perhaps this will be a generation that will use nonlead bullets for hunting. Michael DiBenedetto became certified to teach young people gun safety, and he tells them about the dangers of lead bullets, with the hope that a new generation of hunters will conclude that these bullets are not cool to use. He may have to wait a while for this cultural shift, even to address such a narrow gun-related issue as keeping lead out of venison.

About the author: Diana J. Mason, PhD, RN, Senior Policy Service Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement, George Washington University School of Nursing; and Professor Emerita at Hunter College, City University of New York. She is former president of the American Academy of Nursing. (Image: Ted Grudzinski/AMA)
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