Those watching Countryfile on 12 December will have seen Tom Heap's report on the impact of lead shot, found in the UK's game meat sector, on wildlife and human health. In the report, Countryfile tested pheasants from a range of sources: local farm shops, online game dealers, and found lead shot in a number of birds, including one from major retailer Waitrose, which has already banned lead shot in its meat.


The results were echoed in tests by not-for-profit campaign group Wild Justice, which has just announced that it too has found high levels of lead in game samples sold by Sainbury's.

Wild game — including pheasant, red grouse and partridges — are most commonly shot with lead ammunition, although the shooting industry has a five-year plan to move to a non-lead alternative. The pellets fragment into the bird’s body, leaving tiny shards of lead in the flesh which are too detect during food prep or eating, therefore end up being consumed by humans.

Lead is poisonous and harmful to human health. The Food Standards Agency states: “Consuming lead is harmful, health experts advise to minimise lead consumption as much as possible. Anyone who eats lead-shot game should be aware of the risks posed by consuming large amounts of lead, especially children and pregnant women.”

It continues:

“Eating lead-shot game on a frequent basis can expose consumers to potentially harmful levels of lead. Those who eat lead-shot game should minimise the amount they eat, especially for small game animals.”

Although the government has set Maximum Levels (MLs) for lead in most types of farmed meat (such as beef, lamb and chicken) at 0.1 milligram per kilogram of wet weight of meat, there is no ML for game meat shot with lead.

Of the mixed game meat portions tested by Wild Justice from Sainsbury’s, the MLs set for farmed meat was exceeded by an average of 17 times, and some tested as high as 4.7mg/kg.

There is currently no legal limit for lead in game meat, even though it would far exceed the legal level of lead allowed for farmed meat. Countryfile reported in the programme that some birds have been found with up to 20,000 times the legal limit in other meats.

However, organisations have recognised the need to reduce lead in game meat, including Defra and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC). In 2020, a voluntary five-year phase out of lead shot was announced by organisations within the shooting industry.

But after analysing game samples from Sainsbury’s, Wild Justice argues that this initiative has been ineffective and is now calling for outright ban on use of lead shot, suggesting non-toxic ammunition such as steel as an alternative.

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Wild Justice’s findings of lead in game meat:
  • 100% of samples of mixed game meat tested positive for potentially dangerous amounts of lead. 
  • Tests on packets of pheasant breast and mixed game meat from Sainsbury’s found lead levels up to 76 times higher than legal limit set for beef, pork and chicken. 
  • Of the 11 pheasant breast samples that exceeded the threshold for other meats, average was 32.5 times higher at 3.25mg/kg WW.
  • Out of 16 samples of pheasant breast, 11 contained lead levels over legal limit set for livestock meat.
  • All 16 portions of ‘Diced Game Casserole Mix’ (containing venison, pheasant, partridge) exceeded the same level.

BASC said:

“The shooting community is showing that it is committed to moving away from lead shot. Retailers have made it clear that that want the very best products on their shelves and our sector is working hard to satisfy that demand.”

“Frankly, such attacks on the transition by Wild Justice expose their divisive anti-shooting agenda and give no credit to the substantial efforts taking place in the sector to ensure the consumer has access to healthy, nutritious, sustainable game meat.”

Wild Justice also criticised Sainsbury’s for a lack of appropriate warnings on its game meat packaging. Although it found that warnings about lead shot were included on some of its packaging, this was often not clearly displayed, and instead placed statements prominently on the front of the packaging contradicting this, touting that the product was healthy: ‘Ideal for a healthy casserole or game pie’.

“Sainsbury’s know their game meat has high lead levels but appear to be putting profit ahead of safety because of a regulatory loophole,” said Wild Justice.

“In the run up to Christmas, when people are thinking about festive dishes for the family table, it’s outrageous that products like this can be sold under the guise of being healthy due to failures of government and retailers to act in the public interest.”

Waitrose is asking its suppliers to supply lead-free game meat, with non-toxic ammunition used in the shooting of its UK-sourced duck. The supermarket has also introduced labelling of game meat for consumers, warning of lead levels.


Wild Justice has also taken game meat samples from another high-profile store, and will be releasing these results before Christmas.


Sam is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for wildlife and the outdoors.