An orange van creaks up North St. Mary's on a chilly Saturday, slowly making its way toward the zoo. Emblazoned with a red sign that warns motorists to stop for children, the van is covered in bright stickers, advertising ice cream and candies that it sells for coins along the side of the road. According to a new investigative study published by the Orange County Register, there's a good chance that along with the Lucas Limon and Tama-roca, the van sells lethal amounts of lead to children.
The California paper spent two years reporting this story, employing more than two dozen journalists, four laboratories, and nearly 500 sources in the course of their research. Their findings are stunning, revealing that inadequate federal and state regulations allow Mexican candies that test positive for lead to cross the border, and that little has been done to stop it.
The full report, along with an interactive pictorial of suspected candies, can be found online at http://www.ocregister.com/investigations/2004/lead/index.shtml. Here is a synopsis of the Register's findings:
• The California Department of Health Services has found lead in one-fourth of the candy it has tested since 1993. In 101 of the 112 instances of high-lead candies, no actions were taken against the manufacturer
• California estimates that nearly 15 percent of lead-poisoned children were exposed to tainted Mexican candies - nearly 3,000 children
• Lucas Limon, a popular candy, has tested high for lead in seven out of seven federal tests, with no action from the state of California or the federal government
• Dried chili powder is thought to be the lead-carrying ingredient in many Mexican candies. The Register found that 90 percent of the chili powder they purchased in Mexico tested high for lead
• Lead is present in the soil that the chilies are grown in, and is thought to taint the chili powder when the whole chilis, along with dirt and other debris, are ground into powder. An additional contaminant is the lead-based dye on wrappers
• The Register found that some companies, like the Dulces Moreliates factory that produces Serpentinas, manufacture two versions of their candy: a tainted one sold locally, and a lead-free version that is exported to the U.S. But both versions make their way into U.S. stores, and it is difficult to tell the two apart
• Mexican regulators told the Register that they do not have enough money to inspect or license candy makers
• Unless the candies are made the official subject of an FDA alert, it is legal for importers to bring suspected candies into the U.S.
• Border patrols do not have the manpower to inspect every truck bearing candies
• Because lead content can vary from batch to batch, it is difficult for regulators to authenticate their tests. Additionally, very little testing of candy is actually done. The Register found that in a two-year period, there were only 66 federal lead tests of candy
Two weeks before the Register's report was printed, the FDA issued a letter stating that it was "aware of a problem associated with lead contamination of some Mexican candy products," "advising parents, care providers and other responsible individuals that it would be prudent to not allow children to eat these products at this time." •
Compiled by Laura Fries