Lead is a poison and has been removed from many formerly common uses such as for water pipes and fishing weights, and in petrol and paints. But it is still legal to use lead ammunition to shoot gamebirds such as Pheasant, Red-legged Partridge, Grey Partridge and Red Grouse (amongst others). Maximum lead levels are set for meats such as beef, pork, chicken etc but not, utterly bizarrely, for game meat. The maximum legal lead level for most meats in the UK is 0.1mg of lead per kg of meat, measured as wet weight.

It is well known these days that lead ammunition which passes through a bird or mammal leaves tiny fragments of lead in the flesh of the shot animal. Most of these are too small to be noticed in food preparation or consumption. Non-toxic ammunition for shotguns, primarily steel, is available at similar prices to lead ammunition. Some jurisidictions (eg some US states, Denmark) have banned the use of lead ammunition in many contexts. The UK is thinking about controls on the use of lead ammunition which might come in in 2025 or so.

If you go into a supermarket or a game dealer or a butcher and buy, say, Pheasants for human consumption it is perfectly legal for that meat to contain very high levels of lead – much higher than the maximum legal level for non-game meat. We see this as a serious failure of regulation by the authorities.

Waitrose stuck its head above the parapet in 2019 and said that it was going lead-free for game meat, and received considerable praise for taking this stance (see here). However, testing of game meat on sale in Waitrose stores in 2020 and 2021 showed that this promise had not been met. Our tests published in December 2021, and covered in The Times, showed high levels of lead in Waitrose Pheasant meat. At the time Waitrose’s position was that these high lead levels must have been acquired from the environment. That seems to us, and all the experts we have spoken to, to be ridiculous. We don’t believe it, we don’t know anyone else who believes it, and we don’t really think that Waitrose can believe it.

The Waitrose results for lead in their game meat are pretty similar to those found in Sainsbury’s and Harrods game meat – it would be very difficult to make a case that they are much better or much worse.

So we decided to test some more game meat from Waitrose and collected Pheasant breasts and Woodpigeon breasts from Waitrose stores in north London and Essex in late January 2022, sent them off to a laboratory in the north of Scotland and received the results at the end of March.

Here are the results of those tests, and tests of farmed duck samples from Waitrose, highlighted in yellow and set in the context of our previous findings;

Our samples are quite small – the shelves weren’t packed with game meat when we sampled them – but they are worth reporting. First, farmed duck on sale in Waitrose had low lead levels as expected, as all samples of chicken and pork we have tested have had, and as is required by law. The Woodpigeon and Partridge (we don’t know which species of partridge they were) samples had lead levels that would be illegal to sell in other meats – 15/16 of the samples had levels higher than the maximum legal levels for non-game meats.

These samples were from the same shooting season, 2021/22, as our previous samples reported before Christmas so it’s not surprising that Waitrose haven’t had time to fix this issue yet. But they do have an issue if they are going to live up to their ‘going lead-free’ promise.

Talking to Waitrose: after Waitrose came out with its incredible ‘explanation’ that the high lead levels in their game meat were due to environmental contamination we asked to meet with Waitrose and that meeting finally happened on 30 March, a few days after we received our latest test results reported here.

We had a good meeting with Waitrose’s John Gregson and we indicated the headline results of our further sampling. Wild Justice believes that Waitrose has performed poorly after being praised by us and others for their ‘lead-free’ promise. We suggested that Waitrose must have been let down by its supply chain but that if Wild Justice could test Waitrose game for lead levels then surely a company that made £7.5bn sales in the year ending January 2022 might spare a few quid to test the standards of its food. We understand from Waitrose that they are seriously considering testing their game meat for lead levels next season. We intend to continue testing game meat from Waitrose and other stores next season.

Wild Justice

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