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.