Stephanie M. Lee
August 7, 2012

Children may want to think twice about snacking on popular plum and ginger candies exported from Asia and sold in the Bay Area. A new study found they could contain dangerously high amounts of toxic chemicals.

Lead exceeding amounts permitted by California law was found in 14 plum and ginger candies on the shelves of a selected number of East Bay retailers, the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland watchdog group, said Tuesday.

All 19 sweets tested by the center were made in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan and distributed by Asian or U.S. suppliers for sale at Lucky, 99 Ranch Market, Lion Supermarket, Marina Foods and San Pablo Supermarket. The group selected stores in the East Bay for its study, but the candies, most of which appear under brand names written in Chinese characters, are also sold elsewhere.

Under the consumer law Proposition 65, which voters passed in 1986, California limits the amount of lead in candy to one-tenth parts per million. But the treats contained anywhere from four to 39 times that amount. One package of plum candy from 99 Ranch Market had 96 times the amount of lead allowed by law, the group said.

The study’s scope was small, but the high concentrations of the chemical indicate a widespread problem, said Christine Cordero, program director for the Center for Environmental Health. She recommended that parents have their children tested for lead in their blood, and avoid buying the sweets.

“There is no sure way for consumers to know if these products are lead-tainted,” she said.

U.S. distributors for 99 Ranch would not comment Tuesday. The center has told the five stores and three U.S. distributors it intends to sue.

Lead poisoning in adults is associated with infertility, mood disorders, memory loss and high blood pressure. In children, lead exposure can cause learning difficulties, behavioral problems, seizures, coma and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While lead’s effects are well-known, environmental health advocates say they are not sure how the chemical finds its way into the candy.

One theory involves cars fueled by leaded gasoline. When they travel roads next to fields that grow plums and ginger, lead from their exhaust pipes could end up in the air and dust that touches the crops, said Caroline Cox, research director for the Center for Environmental Health.

“Lead doesn’t ever really go away,” she said. “It doesn’t break down.”

The center tested candies purchased in February and June, after the state Department of Public Health had been unearthing lead in this type of candy for years. In July, the agency warned people not to eat a certain kind of plum candy from Taiwan after it was found to have toxic levels of lead.

In 2006, the Center for Environmental Health reached legal settlements with more than 30 candy makers, including leading sellers of spicy candies from Mexico, after discovering high amounts of lead in their products. Most recently, the organization announced finding the chemical in designer purses and jewelry sold in California.

Toxic candy

The Center for Environmental Health said plum and ginger candy with dangerous levels of lead were found in these stores:

— Lucky (El Cerrito)

— 99 Ranch Market (Richmond)

— Lion Supermarket (Milpitas)

— Marina Foods (Fremont)

— San Pablo Supermarket (San Pablo)

These suppliers distributed candy with lead problems:

JFC International Inc.

— Kam Lee Yuen Trading Co. Inc.

Queensway Foods Co. Inc.

— Continental Trading Co. (Hong Kong)

Dayou Trading Co. (Taiwan)

Sanh Yuan Enterprise Co. Ltd. (Taiwan)

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