I received an impressively swift and detailed reply to my questions for the Riverford Field Kitchen. As promised here’s their full reply, with my response below. You wouldn’t get this quality of debate and discussion from Tesco customer service, I should imagine! Nor, as Mark Avery has discovered, from most other restaurants serving game.
Many thanks for contacting us. It’s great people are asking these questions and even better that we get to debate them and allow grown ups to make up their own minds, and use their food choices to benefit food production processes and support ethical and sustainable food systems.
In reality, there is little chance that the pheasants we will be getting are truly wild, although there are various feral populations in the UK, these birds were reared and released. Given the volume of birds in this area of Devon though, it is not unusual for crafty birds to survive a season or even two and contribute to a ‘wilder’ population.
I’m pleased to say that our pheasants are from local game farms, but I am aware that it is not uncommon for shoots to bring in birds from other UK farms, or just as easily from Europe.
Pheasant farming is largely uncontrolled, however, we need to look at the quality of life offered to these birds after their release or their arrival on the shoot. How many commercially free range organic chickens are as old as a pheasant? How many have had the chance to scratch in the woods and naturalise their feeding habits and social behaviour? Most pheasants reared in the UK are at least reared under a code of good conduct agreement drawn up by the Game Farmers Association and as such can be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act if standards are not up to scratch.
With regards, the use of shot, obviously lead is a heavy metal, but I think it’s worth bearing in mind we used to use this material to make pipes; there is also lead quantities in cereal crops and potato crops, paint, the air etc. It’s extremely unlikely that you would get ill even if you ate shot birds every day of the week. The FSA advise that small children, the elderly and anyone with liver problems should “limit” the amount of shot game they eat, albeit leaving the volume somewhat vague. The bottom line is, to my understanding, that most lead shot consumed by game eaters passes straight through the digestive system, entirely uneroded. The main issues surrounding lead shot and the environment are to do with the aggregation of lead in the soil and is obviously an interesting area in terms of improving the organic credentials of gamekeeping.
Ethically, one could argue that if you choose not to eat a chicken, over time that will cause less chickens to be reared and so, you have affected the causal issue of your ethical concern. The pheasant though is really a bird reared for shooting, the eating of the meat is sadly a secondary issue – if you like, pheasant meat is a semi by-product of the shooting estate. Choosing not to eat it will not affect the amount of birds reared or indeed affect the standards of welfare on the game farm where it is raised. Actually, there’s a fairly sound argument that if we eat more pheasant and increase its value there would be more incentive for the game rearing industry to clean up its act where appropriate, but that’s a long jump and a complex argument.
I hope this goes some way to demonstrate that we are considering the use of game thoroughly at the Field Kitchen. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, so if you have further information which can assist in shaping our policy going forward, it would be gratefully received. We always promote seasonal dining and as a one-off event, we are delighted to be able to showcase the local pheasant so abundant at present so I hope the night will be a great success.
Riverford Field Kitchen
Thanks for your comprehensive answer! I really appreciate you taking the time to put together such a detailed reply. I’m pleased, and not surprised based on our experience as Riverford customers, that you have thought about the issues in detail. On this basis I think I would probably be happy to eat game at the field kitchen, though not too often (see below). Either way I hope we’ll make it down sometime soon. We would have been tempted by the pheasant night – that’s partially what prompted me to ask, for future reference, as the meal sounds absolutely delicious. Unfortunately whilst we’re in Devon the following weekend we can’t make it down until the Saturday. I wish you well with the evening.
The issue I’m least sure about is lead. The campaigner Mark Avery (former RSPB conservation director) has been researching this topic recently and some the evidence he is uncovering is concerning (worth a read here). Beyond lead shot fragments, levels of lead contamination in the tissue of 70% partridges, for example, is higher than the legal limit for conventionally reared meat, in 20% of cases the concentration is 100 times higher! I’m aware that we are exposed to traces of lead in the wider environment, as we are for pesticides. If the organic philosophy is to minimise pesticide use and our exposure to them as much as possible, shouldn’t the same apply to other toxins?
I think it would be an excellent move if you were able to source game shot with alternatives to lead, to encourage change in the industry, but regardless of that the Lead Ammunition Group’s report (a summary of which I linked to in my first email) is widely considered to contain enough evidence to call for a ban on lead shot in all circumstances. If I do get hold of any more information that would help to clarify the situation on lead I’ll be sure to pass it on.