Lead a Poisonous Issue?


In July a UK sporting magazine published an article by John Gregson, former Editor of The Shooting Times and now ethics and sustainability advisor to Waitrose. Indeed it was John who announced in 2019 that Waitrose were to stop selling game shot with lead. John Gregson’s article was entitled, “Lead a poisonous issue”.

John made a presentation to the world in 2019 announcing Waitrose’s intent to stop selling game shot with lead yet simultaneously confirmed this did not include deer/venison as Waitrose only bought deer from game/deer farms as, “dealing with wild species it is hard with the kind of carcasses conformation we need“. 

If that is so then why haven’t Waitrose decided to only buy game from game farms? That would allow them to get all their game carcasses with proper conformation? This could easily include products like pigeon and rabbit as well as all the normal game birds. Even Red Grouse can be captive bred if required. After all, Waitrose happily sell farmed quail, chicken and turkey which has been killed and processed to their requirements. Exactly the same could be done with farm-reared game birds or even by trapping birds from a wilder setting if proven sustainable? That would allow other businesses to choose a similar or different course of action? When one considers that Waitrose closed large shoots on their Hampshire farms some 15+ years ago, which had been quite sizeable concerns, the opportunity was there for them to raise, produce and trap game birds to process on their own ground under their own control as they wished. Waitrose won’t reveal how much game they sell in the UK for commercial confidentiality reasons – I have asked them – however the rumour is it is less that 2 tons per year for the whole of the UK.

 In the piece John made this statement:

“And this is why lead is a problem. The game that we shoot when we line up should always be viewed as a food ingredient. If it isn’t, why are you shooting it? Go and shoot clays instead.”

The only problem is that all of the food Waitrose sell probably contains lead. The Food Standards Agency state on their website with regard to lead in food:

“This is not a new risk and people are exposed to lead in their diet from many sources. It is not possible to avoid exposure to lead from food.”

In John’s article these words really stand out: “NO KNOWN SAFE LEVEL OF EXPOSURE”.

There is a problem it seems with oversupply of game which has been shot in a commercial operation. Indeed the disposal of shot game is a headache for many who have made an industry out of an avocation and field sport; many of the modern participants whom I have met claim they never eat what they shoot anyway. So maybe John is right, why are they shooting birds and not clay pigeons?

Maybe giving the choice to consumers whether they buy farmed, trapped or shot game would rationalise where the market actually sits. The removal of wild goose as a bird that once shot can be sold into a market has neither harmed wildfowling nor the goose population, for example. I shoot wild geese for my Christmas dinner some years but in other years I buy a farmed bird. I also enjoy clay pigeon shooting. There seems to be a misunderstanding with regard to historical bag sizes which to some degree were governed by the price paid for dead game – a rare and indeed cherished commodity pre 1960 which actually helped defray the considerable costs incurred by estates, syndicates and farms in the heady days before pay by the bird commercial shooting was introduced. The surplus game birds at that time were regarded as a crop to be harvested and maybe commercial game shooting today is mirroring the perceived problems of modern industrial farming seemingly driven by supermarket demands for increasingly cheaper products?

John also writes:

“If you still don’t want to listen, just have a quiet think about why lead is no longer in paint, petrol or water pipes. It’s not because they found more economical alternatives. It’s because people became sick and died.”

All the products John lists contained lead compounds/ions which are highly dangerous. Tetra-ethyl lead, which was added to leaded petrol, was a deadly poison which killed many at its production plants and produced highly toxic compounds that were released into the environment, where being insoluble it remains within the food chain, at a rate of up to 400 tons a day over an 80-year period in the UK. However metallic lead of the sort used in ammunition has to be changed into a compound or an ion in order to be absorbed into the body. If elemental/metallic lead was the huge problem portrayed by some, we would be in a world of pain in the UK for along with having some of the richest deposits of Galena (common lead ore) spread all over the country, there are still thousands of miles of lead water and gas pipes, many still in use here in the UK as well as billions of tons of building lead in situ and existing to poison the country via water run off. However for the last two thousand years there seems to have been little indication of any negative effects.

Sometimes we forget that lead, iron (from which steel shot is made), bismuth and copper are all listed as heavy metals and neurotoxins. There is much scientific worry about copper poisoning of humans as a result of water passing through domestic copper pipes for instance.

John then admits having no specific scientific evidence to back his words up – it is a recommendation formed mainly from assumption it would seem:  

“Go and have a look at what the Food Standards Agency says about consuming game shot with lead if I still haven’t convinced you“

John and Waitrose like to repeat what the WHO and FSA state, that lead “is a neurotoxin with no known safe level of exposure”. But if there is no safe level of lead then how can Waitrose continue to sell food, as the previously mentioned FSA statement would seem to damn all food? Waitrose also happily sell another product that is a “neurotoxin with no known safe level of exposure”  yet are not making any reforms as regards selling products containing it. This neurotoxin in 2018 /19 in England – out of 17 .1 million hospital admissions – put 1.26 million people in hospital and was attributed to 7500 deaths yet in the same year according to NHS figures 5 people were admitted with lead poisoning to those same hospitals, none of whom died and none were diagnosed to be there as a result of eating game shot with lead. This demonstrably more dangerous neurotoxin is called alcohol.

Another of John’s statements appears somewhat disingenuous:   

“However, the good news is that shooters around the world are already distancing themselves from lead. In the USA, California has banned the use of lead ammunition, Denmark began to move away in the 90s and will implement a complete ban by 2023”

He forgot to mention Norway where lead ammunition was banned for all shooting in 2005 yet that ban (apart from wetlands and shooting ranges) was overturned in 2015 on the grounds of the lack of lethality of the alternatives. Below is a statement relating to the reasons and the majority vote to overturn the ban:

Parliament voted in January 2015 over the issue of repealing the ban. The votes were 76 yes, 16 no and 5 representatives did not vote. For the hunting and shooting interests a clear victory. The Parliament found the extreme warnings from the lead ban lobby exaggerated and not trustworthy.

Now those same extreme warnings from the lead ban lobby appear to be the same that are being used to bludgeon the British shooting public into accepting a less efficient, less humane alternative to lead shot, a projectile which has not caused a lead isotopic marker scientifically verifiable problem for humans or wildlife in the UK during the last 400 years of use .

It seems from John Gregson’s statements that Waitrose will be happy to sell game that has been shot with steel shot (actually malleable iron).  It is well documented that tiny shards of iron/steel are regarded as potential health hazards in minced meat etc. I am not an expert in food hygiene regulations however I have memories of various outcries over the years of foreign metal objects being found in food products. So why, despite printing warnings on packaging, are Waitrose prepared to present such hazards to their customers?

There is a far more complicated relationship between man and lead than the sort of simplistic arguments that John Gregson and his employers are trying to force upon us. Far more clarity and government-sponsored independent scientific investigation are needed before the real facts on this and other metals’ role relative to the environment and to our health are understood.

It is more likely that this removal of lead in ammunition is actually aimed at aiding a gradual process, driven by people who have vested interests, in the banning of shooting sports.

Mark Crudgington is a 2nd generation gunmaker, at large in Wiltshire. His company George Gibbs Ltd is nearing its 200th birthday. A passionate shot, angler, deer stalker and natural sceptic.