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Most area meat processors opt out of venison donation program

BRIAN BASHAM/TRIBUNE Jeremy Rodewald transports a deer carcass from cold storage to the cutting block at Hoffman's Town & Country Meat Market in Detroit Lakes.

The Becker County Food Pantry is losing a significant source of meat this winter.

New regulations concerning venison donations by meat processors have led many area processors to stop their donation programs.

Deer hunters would donate venison to a processor, which then gives meat away to area food banks. The state reimburses processors for the time it takes to prepare the meat.

"The regulations made it hard for us to put out a good product," said Henry Hoffman, owner of Hoffman's Town & Country in Detroit Lakes."

The new rules have come about because of concerns over lead contamination in venison.

Alice Hammer, an administrative assistant at the Becker County Food Pantry, said that over 2,000 pounds of venison was donated to the pantry last winter.

The donated venison used to come to food banks in a variety of forms such as whole cuts, stew meat and ground venison.

However, the concerns over lead contamination have led the state Department of Agriculture to prohibit donating ground venison.

Hoffman said he questions the value of providing the stew meat.

"How many people are going to eat venison stew?" he said.

A more viable solution, he said, is to use the trim for sausage.

"There is nothing wrong with that," Hoffman said. "You could mix it with beef and pork sausage."

Other processors are concerned about how the perception of lead contamination would affect their image, and eventually the bottom line, especially in the midst of an economic downturn.

"The chance of having lead (in the meat) can ruin your reputation," said Lakes Processing owner Brad Bachmann.

Bachmann said that other processors are worried about the damage that the perception of lead contamination can do to their business as well.

"They are afraid of losing everything they've worked for in the past 15 years," he said.

Despite the perception it could be a money issue, Bachmann said that's not the case.

He cited the fact that in the first year that they donated venison, the state didn't reimburse his business. Hunters would pay $25 to donate, which is about a third of the regular processing price.

"We covered the rest, which was wonderful," Bachmann said.

Uncertainty regarding the state's reimbursement for venison has caused concern as well for processing operations.

Hoffman said that he has a letter that said that if lead were found in a sample, processors wouldn't get paid. But he said that he was verbally told by a state official that wasn't the case.

With ground venison off the list of approved products, Bachmann said that a lot of effort goes into preparing more stew meat.

He said that it's too labor intensive.

Another problem that is affecting processors is that they have to hold a deer carcass in their freezers for several days if a sample is taken to a centralized location to be X-rayed, Bachman said.

"We don't have a lot of locker space," Bachmann said. "It would jam us up, so we couldn't feasibly do it."

He added that many other processors are mom-and-pop operations, so their storage space is limited.

Only one processor in the area is participating in the venison donation program, Butcher's Blend in Perham.

The owner of Butcher's Blend, Alan Ousley, said that the additional rules aren't burdening him enough to stop.

"You have to jump through more hoops, but it's not bad," Ousley said.

He said that he's preparing more whole cuts and letting those who receive donations from food banks cut up the meat into pieces that are suitable for stew themselves. Storing the deer while samples are being X-rayed isn't an issue for Butcher's Blend either.

"We have plenty of room," Ousley said.

In the end, the lack of venison donations to the food pantry is affecting its operations.

Hammer said that the food pantry has to buy meat that it wouldn't have done in past winters.

Exacerbating the situation is that the food pantry hasn't been able to buy meat from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a few months.

"We're having to buy it from local grocery stores," Hammer said.

The advantage from buying from the U.S.D.A. is that they can buy meat at 10 to 15 cents per pound compared to $2 to $3 per pound.

Hammer, though, said that Central Market gives the food pantry a price break, which does help some.

But all in all, it's becoming more difficult to provide meat protein to those in need.

"We had a lot of venison to give out last year," Hammer said.

"When we don't get that, we have to substitute something else and it gets very costly."

That's why Hammer said that cash donations are preferred, because the food pantry can just go out and purchase items that it doesn't receive through donations.

"We're hanging in there," she said. "And doing the best we can."