A decade ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to candy distributors and manufacturers, warning that the agency would take action should any sweets sold in the U.S. be found to contain a toxic amount of lead. To this day, however, you can still find candy, largely Mexican imports, with known lead content sold in stores and from ice-cream trucks mostly in Latino neighborhoods.
The Orange County Register reported in April 2004 that, despite knowing about lead-contaminated candy for years, state and federal regulatory agencies failed to notify the public. A year later, Register reporters found that a popular spicy, tart powder called Lucas Limon was still on store shelves, even after both the FDA and California Department of Health finally issued warnings about its toxicity and after the candy's manufacturer, Mars Inc., issued a voluntary recall.
The thought of anything less than a mandatory government-ordered recall of a snack food known to contain a substance that causes serious health problems in kids-including developmental disabilities and, if undetected, could be fatal-leaves Leticia Ayala, director of the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition's Campaign to Eliminate Childhood Lead Poisoning, incredulous.
"If you leave it to a voluntary recall, nothing gets done by the manufacturer," she said.
A bill awaiting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature would impose fines and, more important, outright bans on the sale of lead-contaminated candy anywhere in California-two things the feds and the state have failed to do. Schwarzenegger has until Oct. 9 to plow through roughly 800 bills awaiting his approval. If this one passes, it will be the first legislation of its kind in the U.S., said Ayala.
The bill, AB 121, authored by Assemblymember Juan Vargas, is a long time coming. It took three unsuccessful tries to get lead-candy legislation to the governor's desk.
Earlier versions of the bill were either too specific, targeting only imported Mexican candy, a no-no under NAFTA, or too vague, mandating that all candy sold in the U.S. could be open to testing, a possibility that prompted a counterattack by candy manufacturers such as Hershey and Kraft.
AB 121 mainly targets candy containing chili and tamarind. Acidic tamarind bonds with lead in the ink used to print candy wrappers, contaminating the candy. Register reporters, touring several chili farms in Mexico, found that it wasn't uncommon for metal debris to get mixed in as dried chilies were being ground into powder. In some cases, reporters noted, metal, dirt and gravel were purposely mixed in with ground chili powder since it's sold by weight.
Under the bill, a collaborative comprising people who've worked in childhood lead-prevention, Ayala among them, would convene to determine the process and methodology for testing candy. The state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment would determine what amount of lead is acceptable (some lead is unavoidable if a candy ingredient comes from the ground). Funding would come either from fines imposed on manufacturers and distributors found to be selling contaminated candy or from a pending lawsuit against a candy manufacturer that Ayala declined to discuss.
Ayala said the goal is to work with offending candy manufacturers to get them to clean up their act-use lead-free wrappers or be more careful during the manufacturing process. If they comply, their candy is welcome in the U.S."Many candy manufacturers have implemented certain changes to get the lead out... so it can be done. We just need the pressure of our bill to send the message loud and clear: You guys can continue to make your profit, you can continue to sell your product-we love these candies-but the one condition is remove the lead."