Sainsbury’s game meat – and why we tested its lead levels

Later this week we will publish the results of laboratory tests that we commissioned to determine the amount of toxic lead present in samples of game meat being sold by Sainsbury’s supermarket.

The reason we chose to test game meat samples from Sainsbury’s for traces of toxic lead was because in autumn last year we became aware that Sainsbury’s was selling two game meat products – pheasant breasts and a mixed-game casserole (venison, Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge marketed as ‘healthy’) – both produced and supplied by game dealer Holme Farmed Venison (HFV) in North Yorkshire. Both products were ‘kite-marked’ by the British Game Alliance which claims to be the ‘official marketing board for the UK game industry’ offering ‘traceability and credibility’.

However, despite this endorsement both Sainsbury’s and the supplier were reluctant to answer customers’ questions about why there was no health warning that these products may contain toxic lead shot, for which there is no agreed safe level of consumption according to the Food Standards Agency. Health warnings were absent from the product packaging, from Sainsbury’s in-store shelf labelling and from the sales pages on both Sainsbury’s and HFV’s websites.

Repeated requests were made to Sainsbury’s and to HFV for information about the lead content of these products. Sainsbury’s initially responded with this generic corporate response, which dodged the direct questions about whether the products contained, or had been tested for, toxic lead:

The product you have enquired about is a branded product (not Sainsbury’s own brand) and we would encourage any further questions to be directed to Holme Farmed Venison, through their customer helpline. The branded Holme Farm Venison (HFV) [sic] game products are assured by the British Game Alliance (BGA).

The British Game Alliance independently audits all shoots participating in the accreditation, ensuring that they are all compliant with the requirements.

Lead shot is being phased out, but is still in use, however HFV products only select from meat that has no shot in it. Initially, visually inspected and then metal detected at the game processor and again visually inspected in the final pack. There are additional warnings on pack that refers to shot to ensure customers are aware.

When customers weren’t satisfied that their concerns had been addressed and wrote again to Sainsbury’s, Sainsbury’s responded in a shocking display of complacency about its own customers’ health concerns:

At present Sainsbury’s will not be providing any further update regarding your concerns, and we would encourage any further questions to be directed to Holme Farmed Venison, through their customer helpline.

Holme Farmed Venison failed to respond to a single information request.

So, since Sainsbury’s seemed so reluctant to provide health information on products it had chosen to sell, and Holme Farmed Venison refused to communicate at all, we thought we’d do some testing to find out whether these products contained any toxic lead and if so, how much.

We’ll tell you about those analyses later this week.