Lead-tainted candy still on store shelves

On the counter next to the cash register of del Campo Produce,
owner Jose Haro keeps a broad selection of candy made in Mexico for
his youngest customers. But what neither Haro nor the local
children buying the various sweets know, is that some of the treats
could contain harmful amounts of lead.
Hollister – On the counter next to the cash register of del Campo Produce, owner Jose Haro keeps a broad selection of candy made in Mexico for his youngest customers. But what neither Haro nor the local children buying the various sweets know, is that some of the treats could contain harmful amounts of lead.

In spite of several voluntary recall efforts by the California Department of Health Services and an educational campaign by the San Benito County Health Department, the potentially dangerous snacks are still found throughout San Benito County and the state of California.

Lead-tainted candy, much of it from Mexico, has caused a fervor in California where as many as 3,000 children have been poisoned as a result of eating the sweets in the last three years, according to an investigation conducted by the Orange County Register. But beyond voluntary recalls on some products, no standards have been set, largely because the lead content differs from batch to batch, making it difficult to know where to draw the line, said Lea Brooks, spokesperson for the California Department of Health Services.

“When we’ve had tests on candy, they’ve been very inconsistent,” she said. “And if tests show they are not consistently contaminated, there is no enforcement over the products.”

Last fall San Benito County Health Department launched an educational campaign to tell vendors about the risk of the candy and urge them to stop selling the items. In spite of warnings, no enforcement has taken place, largely because the Health Department cannot do anything to restrict the sales.

Haro, the store owner, said he’s not trying to hurt anyone or expose children to dangerous chemicals, but he hasn’t received any letters from the state or county notifying him of the dangers of the candy.

“I haven’t seen or heard anything,” said Haro. “If someone would just tell me what the problem is, I will take them down. I have always wanted what’s best for the client.”

Suzi Hogeman, an educator at the county Health Department, says she talked to a store employee at Del Campo Produce in the fall and gave them a list of candies that could potentially have high lead content. However, Haro bought Del Campo in December, after Hogeman made her rounds.

In the past decade, DHS has conducted over 1,000 tests on candy, in which close to 10 percent came up for lead. Any candy exceeding the lead benchmark of 0.5 parts per million is considered dangerous, according to DHS. Most of the candy exceeding safe levels contain chili and tamarind, which may be contaminated with the metal during the manufacturing process or through air-borne lead when the ingredients are dried, the Food and Drug Administration said in a March 2004 letter to importers and distributors of candy.

The agency also issued a special warning against children and pregnant women eating Chaca Chaca, a coated fruit bar that was found to contain as much as 0.3 to 0.4 micrograms of lead per gram of product. There is now a ban on importing the candy into the United States.

Simply banning the products doesn’t go far enough, however, because many of the dangerous candies are brought into the U.S. through informal channels such as when a small vendor goes to Mexico to stock up on candy and brings it over the border.

Many local vendors removed questionable candy from their shelves after the voluntary recall, but others wonder if the health department’s campaign is only a ploy to put them out of business.

“We’ve eaten these candies all of our lives and nothing has happened to us,” said Jose Reynoso, owner of Hollister Drive-In Market. Reynoso said he recalled getting a letter from the state several years ago advising him to remove certain candies, which he did promptly. However, he is not sure the efforts are well-targeted because there are other products manufactured in Mexico that contain chili, such as Frito Lay chips, which are FDA approved.

“It seems like a political thing to me,” he said.

And though the problem has been discussed throughout the state, only one child in San Benito County has came up with elevated levels of lead, said Muree Reafs, director of nursing at the Health Department. Long-term exposure to lead can result in delayed mental and physical development, hyperactivity and behavioral problems.

Hogeman, the lead prevention educator at the San Benito County Department of Health and Human Services, says that in order to be absolutely sure about the quality of what they are eating, consumers should not buy any products made in Mexico, because they are not inspected by the FDA.

“We don’t know if they are dangerous, but to be on the safe side, it’s better to avoid them,” she said.

Meanwhile, FDA is in the process of lowering the legal levels of lead in candy and working with the Mexican government and the Mexican candy industry to combat the problem, said a spokeswoman from the Los Angeles office of the federal agency who did not want to be named. “We are having meetings, sending letters and making plans for more stringent action,” she said.

Until federal guidelines are created, parents are urged to steer clear of candies with chili and tamarind and give their kids healthy snacks instead, said DHS’s Lea Brooks.

“It’s important to realize that the bulk of the product (Mexican candy) has no lead in it,” she said. “But we still urge people to not eat it.”

Karina Ioffee covers education and agriculture for the Free Lance. Reach her at (831)637-5566 ext. 335 or [email protected]

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