Monday, February 2, 2015
By Samantha Bonar

Lead, while a useful material for many things, is not what you want as the secret ingredient in your gingersnaps.

And despite a 2013 lawsuit brought by the California state attorney general and the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health against Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and other grocers for selling candied ginger containing high levels of lead, it’s still not safe to buy in California, food-safety advocates say. Candied ginger is also harder to find.

According to the suit, the companies – also including Target, 99 Ranch Market, Safeway, Cost Plus and several Asian market chains — violated California’s Prop. 65 (which requires businesses to warn consumers about harmful toxins in food, toys, jewelry and other products) by selling candy, snacks and bulk food made with ginger containing dangerously high lead levels.

Each of the products tested contained more lead than the maximum level considered safe, according to the state attorney general’s office. At least one product contained lead amounts nearly seven times that limit.

About a dozen companies agreed to a settlement agreement last March; a few more joined the settlement in September.

However, “We have ongoing ginger cases with about 90 companies, including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and others we are co-litigating with the attorney general,” Charles Margulis, a spokesman for the CEH, told the Weekly. Other companies that have yet to settle include Albertson’s, Cost Plus, Marshalls, Mrs. Gooch’s and Safeway.

Defendants who settled agreed not to “purchase, manufacture, ship, sell or offer for sale in California or anywhere else” ginger products containing a concentration of more than seventeen (17) parts per billion (ppb) lead by weight, as verified by an independent, accredited lab.

They also agreed to withdraw the products named in the suit from the market in California and to destroy them, and to pay civil penalties and a portion of CEH’s attorneys’ fees and costs. The companies were also required to turn over the names and contact information of their suppliers.

“We have settlements finalized with 14 companies; two more settlements are pending,” Margulis said. “Under the terms of the settlements we have finalized, companies can sell their ginger products if they meet strict limits on lead. Any company that reaches a settlement can begin selling products that meet the terms.”

Although not part of the settlement, Target has pulled the products named in the suit (Archer Farms brand) from its shelves. It is unclear whether Trader Joe’s Uncrystallized Candied Ginger?and Whole Foods’ The Ginger People Baker’s Cut Crystallized Ginger Chips and Whole Foods Bulk Ginger?— which all tested high for lead — are still on the market. The companies did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“As far as we know, the companies have not initiated recalls of their products, so it is possible that some retailers still have lead-tainted ginger products on the shelves,” Margulies said.

According to the World Health Organization, exposure to lead can cause myriad health problems, including cancer, damage to the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys, high blood pressure and anemia. Lead exposure is particularly damaging to the developing brains of fetuses and young children, and to pregnant women.

Agreeing not to sell lead-tainted ginger seems like a no-brainer. So why is it taking so long to resolve this case?

“In food cases where you have ingredients like ginger that may be sourced from different geographic areas that have different challenges, it can be a challenge to work out a resolution that is both in the best interest for public health and is one that the companies feel they can consistently meet,” Margulis explained.

Unfortunately, the way our food-safety system works – which is basically on the honor system – it is often easier for companies to turn a blind eye when it comes to the origins and contents of the products they sell, Margulis said. “A general challenge of our regulatory system is that it gives the companies a disincentive when it comes to toxic chemicals in their products. Companies may feel that it’s not worth the extra effort to know their ingredients, because if they don’t know there’s a problem, they’re less likely to be held responsible,” he told the Weekly. “We need chemical safety rules that call for safer products before they get to store shelves, not recalls after products are found to be harmful.”

So, is it safe for California consumers to buy candied ginger – including crystallized and uncrystalized products – now? “It depends,” Margulis said. “We’re not aware that any of the stores has initiated a product recall. It’s possible there’s older stock still on the shelves. I would be wary about that. I would recommend that people only buy from one of the stores with which we have a settlement.”

After all, the only thing we want fully leaded is our coffee, not our cookies.