Pheasant breasts sold in Waitrose contaminated with high levels of toxic lead

In July 2019, supermarket Waitrose announced it was going to stop selling gamebirds that had been shot with toxic lead gunshot and said that from the 2020/21 shooting season it would only stock lead-free gamebirds (see here).

The following year, in February 2020, many (but not all) of the main shooting organisations announced a five-year voluntary transition away from lead ammunition, because they’d seen the writing on the wall and didn’t want to be forced into a compulsory ban. Not many of us had faith in the industry’s commitment (see here) and if you read the letters pages of the shooting rags you’ll see a torrent of raging shooters still arguing, two years on, about their reluctance (and in many cases refusal) to switch to using non-toxic ammunition.

Last year, Waitrose earned itself more kudos (amongst conservationists and health professionals, at least) by delivering a bold presentation at a game-shooting industry conference, where John Gregson, senior manager of agri-food communications at Waitrose, told delegates, ‘We don’t have five years to get rid of lead‘ (here).

However, last year campaign group Wild Justice bought some pheasants from Waitrose and had them tested for lead content. They were indeed again contaminated with toxic lead and Waitrose blamed the Covid pandemic for not being able to meet its promise of selling uncontaminated gamebirds. Waitrose made another commitment: ‘We are now pledging that by season 2021-22 all Waitrose & Partners game will be brought to bag without the use of lead ammunition‘ (see here).

Guess what? Wild Justice has tested more pheasant breasts from Waitrose (and Harrods and Sainsbury’s) this year and they are still contaminated with toxic lead shot. You can read the Wild Justice blog (here) for the detailed results and an article in yesterday’s Times can be read here:

Waitrose isn’t happy about the media coverage – in fact it’s fair to say some of its senior staff are very, very angry. I’m not surprised – it must be incredibly embarrassing when you’ve previously stuck your neck out and made commitments, twice, to not sell poisonous meat, only to have some pesky campaigners come along and, for the cost of a few hundred quid, have the meat tested and find it to contain toxic lead at levels which far exceed the legal limit for lead in pork, chicken and beef.

Waitrose is quoted in The Times:

We strongly refute any suggestion that our shoots are using lead ammunition. Our understanding is that no shot was found in the Waitrose game tested and we are confident that these results are explained by environmental residues“. [i.e. Waitrose thinks the pheasants ate the toxic lead from the ground before they were shot with non-toxic ammo].

Hmm. If the results can be explained away as ‘environmental residues’ (which incidentally, the senior scientist at the testing lab said is ‘unlikely’ given the high level of lead content in the birds), then the land from where these pheasants were shot should be sealed off and an intensive programme of detoxification should ensue with immediate effect by people wearing heavy duty biohazard protection equipment.

Some might argue that Waitrose is putting profit before customers’ health, but I’m not sure I agree with that. Waitrose has claimed to be using ‘rigorous segregation’ in its gamebird supply chains, only using shoots who use non-toxic ammunition. I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt Waitrose’s good intentions here – it has been leading on this issue for a number of years and is actively co-funding research to examine the shooting industry’s claimed transition from toxic lead ammunition (see here).

However, what I think Waitrose can legitimately be accused of is naivety. Waitrose has placed its confidence in a shooting industry that has demonstrated time and time again that it simply can’t be trusted (e.g. see links in this blog for starters). At the very least, Waitrose should be conducting its own testing on the gamebird meat it sells. It certainly shouldn’t have downgraded its warning labels before knowing with confidence that its gamebird meat doesn’t contain poison. And it would help consumer confidence if it would name its gamebird supplier so we can all assess the environmental credentials of the shoots rather than taking the word of a game dealer with a vested interest in selling the birds to a high-end retailer!

There’ll be more to come on this subject from Wild Justice.

Wild Justice is a not-for-profit organisation set up by Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery. It is entirely dependent on donations. To support its work – click here. To hear more about its campaigns and legal cases subscribe to its free newsletter – click here.

21 thoughts on “Pheasant breasts sold in Waitrose contaminated with high levels of toxic lead”

  1. Brilliant Ruth. As always measured, succinct and a joy to read.
    I’m inclined to agree that Waitrose’s intentions are good and that they have been naive in believing the ‘game’ shooting industry. Which just goes to prove what a bunch of xxxxxxxxxx xxxxx the shooters are.
    Nevertheless it is incumbent on Waitrose to gain greater awareness of the tricks these people pull and not find another area of blame. Environmental residues my foot!

  2. Hmm, so it’s ok to have a lead content 186 x (or even 29 x) the legal limit as long as it doesn’t come from being shot? Accepting that lead is in the environment, presumably the pheasants aren’t consuming large quantities of lead bearing rocks, or even soil, or even discarded lead piping. So I wonder where the most likely source of this lead is coming from… Tricky one.

    I also wonder if this phenomenon has been seen in farm livestock? This must be a big concern to Waitrose et al.

    I’m no toxicologist, but would a pheasant (most likely hatched this year; so still growing/ developing), that had consumed 186 x the legal level of lead in such as short space of time, be showing lead poisoning symptoms? Would it even be able to fly?

    1. Yes, I agree. The contention that the lead was due to environmental residues may – from Waitrose’s point of view at least – be a defence of the honesty of their business partners, but it is hardly a reassurance to their customers. But it doesn’t seem to be a very plausible defence of their supply chain in any case. If their free-range poultry started to come into stores with this level of lead contamination there surely would be all hell let loose rather than the dismissive shrug we are seeing in this instance.

      As to the state of health of birds that died with this level of lead in their tissues I am inclined to agree with you that some of the levels reported by Wild Justice would have been high enough to make the bird very ill if they were there for reasons other than being shot. Sears and Hunt (1991) report lead levels in mute swans diagnosed as dead from lead poisoning and although they took samples from the tissues that are known to accumulate lead (liver, kidney and bone) so their samples are not directly comparable with the WJ samples, they also state that blood levels above 40 microgrammes/100 ml (in live swans) are considered to indicate an undesirable level of exposure. If my maths are correct that is is approximately 0.4 milligrammes/kg. A number of WJs samples, including Waitrose’s pheasant breasts, had median lead levels well above that.

  3. What I find interesting here is that there is no indication that any whole pieces of shot, whether steel, lead or other substance, were found in any of the samples tested from any of the retailers mentioned. I do not know what the expected incidence of whole, identifiable, pieces of shot in shot pheasants might be. However, I would have thought that one or two pieces would have been found. Could the apparently total absence of identifiable pieces of shot be an indication that the products on sale had been subject to X-ray checking. This would enable parts obviously containing shot to be eliminated, either by being discarded or by removal of the shot, but leaving the shards caused by impact undetected.
    Whilst I appreciate that there might be significant cost implications, if the problem persists might it be possible to have the more seriously affected samples subjected to some form of micro X-ray procedure to establish whether shards are present? Presumably lead, being a softer material than steel, is more susceptible to the shedding of these small fragments.
    I have to say that, as a Waitrose customer (albeit not in their meat department), I am very surprised at this lapse in their quality-control checking – particularly in view of their previous assurances on the matter. If their assertion is correct, that the lead traces detected were of environmental origin, it offers further damning evidence of the risks associated with the continued use of this toxic substance in shotgun cartridges – evidence which is stacked so clearly against it that it beggars belief that its use is still legal. It’s high time that the Government got to grips with the issue by properly addressing both the food standards and environmental aspects of the case.

    1. Re the relative hardness/softness of shot made of lead. Such are NOT pure lead. pure lead is so soft that due to the compressive forces of ballistic acceleration in the barrel, such shot would deform to be flattened/dented/squashed out-of-round to the point of affecting ballistics performance at the designed effective ranges. Lead for shot manufacture is alloyed with (at least) Antimony – at least it was when I loaded my own 10 bore cartridges for shooting wild grey geese. So if lead from shot is traced, a simple alloy analysis will show if it’s pure lead as found naturally in certain locations – or sourced from spent shot, or shot found in aforementioned fowl muscle offered for sale as game. Or indeed, lead from other sources such as scrapped material. Which due to related scrap value, the latter may be uncommon, but not something to be left out of consideration if accusatory conclusions are to be proof against counter arguments.

      Although lead use seems now to be getting rather indefensible, its choice as the most useful material for this purpose was entirely logical before lead’s toxicity was well known. It is easily the most dense metal commonly available, with tungsten, bismuth or alloys of those being a fairly poor second. And *vastly* more expensive. The use of steel shot as now advocated by many ignores the fact that steel is ballistically highly inferior to these dense metals, with characteristics making its non toxic nature the one factor in its favour.

      Size for size, steel shot carries far, far less energy to target and is known to be responsible for highly increased levels of pricked/wounded game. I should maybe add here that I haven’t been active in the field for a quarter century or more with anything more offensive than cameras and occasionally a fly rod. So no longer have a dog in this race of any sort.

      But while I was active as above, I regularly ate what I shot. And can only recall one occasion when a pellet was found on our plates. No proof of anything, obviously. But none of us have any sort of illness or infirmity of any sort that could be attributed to having consumed plenty of low-fat game of all sorts over close on half a century of shooting variously in Eastern central Scotland.

      In the hope that some of the above might assist someone interested in these matters – regardless of sought outcome.

  4. I doubt that Waitrose buy stock directly from individual shoots. They probably buy from game dealers who have the tech to collect, grade and pack the product. I thought there had been a statement saying that the main players in this field would no onger be accepting game shot with lead? So…promises, industry standards, codes of practice and probably contract obligations dont work….. and industry out of control and beyond regulation….still poisoning people.

    1. Ruth you make the comment that Waitrose may be naive in trusting the game industry. Have Waitrose been made aware of the demonstrable lack of integrity that this cabal have, and their word is worthless.

      Hopefully once aware, Waitrose will start to apply as stringent specifications onto their game suppliers as they do to mainstream food producers.

      1. In an ideal world I would agree, it depends how many senior staff at Waitrose and other supermarkets are sympathetic to the game shooting industry and willing to make allowances or ignore criticism due to peer pressure. If anything like the senior staff in NatureScot and Natural England it could be quite a few!

        1. Recalling the comments by John Gregson at the game event, detailed above (We don’t have five years) I believe they are well aware of the need to respect the viewpoint of buyers. It was an interesting and serious presentation. Yet there is today no recall on the Waitrose website, @ 2000hrs, 20th. Perhaps there is a dispute in the boadroom.

        2. You mentioned senior staff at NatureScot. The Ferret tweeted today a list of people rejected as board members by NS. All represent environmental viewpoints.

            1. The Ferret link above is (understandably) behind a paywall. Some of the names are here on twitter, scroll down a bit…

              1. “The Ferret link above is (understandably) behind a paywall”

                Uh? It isn’t to me. Is it, perhaps, a restricted access quota?

                1. I get this…

                  “To read more, you need to sign in to your Ferret account. Only our members get unlimited access to all our stories.”

                  … followed by membership options and prices.

    2. You are probably quite correct, though Waitrose do refer to ‘our shoots’, suggesting a direct link with the sources of the pheasants. However, one more stage in the process means another opportunity for error (or worse) to creep in. Maybe whoever was responsible had not bargained for the products being tested once they’d been processed.
      I wonder what the British Game Assurance organisation makes of this business?
      What does it take to get the Food Standards Agency involved? One would have thought that this was right up their street, especially with there already being specified lead limits for other types of meat where lead is hardly an issue. How come a ‘bang to rights’ case of lead involvement in the death of the product does not attract such scrutiny and regulation?

  5. What Waitrose are claiming (“we are confident that these results are explained by environmental residues”) implies that their game products are NOT safe to eat, regardless of whether lead shot has been used!

    I think that makes matters considerably worse for Waitrose, since such contamination cannot, therefore, be circumvented by any simple type of ban on lead shot.

    The Food Standards Agency are clearly asleep at the wheel on the issue of lead contamination in ‘game’ meat and ‘not fit for use’ in their statutory role of protecting public health with regard to food.

    Yet another failing Government Department (but with NO Ministerial oversight to complain to. The FSA are, handily, both judge and jury in their own cause regarding any complaints from the public about their behaviour, and you are not even allowed to complain to their Ombudsman unless your MP agrees to forward your complaint on your behalf! But should your MP be a supporter of shooting… This is another example of how Parliament has stitched things up over many decades, protecting the shooting classes.)

    1. Yes Keith, and either way the source of the lead is likely to be from lead shot used for shooting pheasants. I wonder how much of the 6000 tons used annually actually hits the intended target. I would imagine that the greater part is left scattered around the countryside. There must be quite a concentration of ‘environmental lead’ in localities where shooting regularly occurs in the same fixed positions. This would also include clay pigeon shooting sites if they haven’t made the switch to non-lead ammunition.

      1. Assuming those pheasants have been reared and released, it would seem they have not been eating in that environment long before being shot. So what might be the lead burden of other, more long-lived, wildlife? Assuming there isn’t a pheasant monoculture, of course.

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