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Food safety lags boom in imports

By WILLIAM HEISEL/ The Orange County Register
Saturday, April 24, 2004

About this series

Regulators have found unsafe lead levels in 112 brands of candy - most made in Mexico - but test results almost always are kept from parents and health officials.

Chili gives Mexican candies a spicy kick, but it can be laced with lead before it is sold to candy makers.

Some Mexican companies make two versions of candy, one clean and one using lead-tainted ingredients. These poison products are not for export but still make their way into California.

A tiny Mexican village's economy depends on ceramic pots crafted to hold candy. The lead glaze used on the pots has contaminated the children there.

Poison candy flows into California because federal and state regulators can't agree on how to stop it. Only 2 percent of all food is inspected at the border.

Activists tried to force the state to solve the poison-candy problem, but lobbyists, a budget deficit and indifference worked against a bill for more testing.

Mexican green onions killed three people in Pennsylvania.

Raspberries from Guatemala gave thousands of people nationwide severe stomach pains.

A Canadian cow sparked concern that U.S. hamburgers might ravage people's brains.

On Sunday, you'll hear about a new health threat: lead in Mexican candy. "Toxic Treats," a six-part Register investigation, follows the candy trail from Mexico to homes all over Southern California.

The series illuminates one slice of our increasingly complex food supply. We take for granted that everything we eat has been checked and declared safe. The series shows such faith is unfounded.

The amount of food imported into the United States has more than doubled to $50 billion in the last 20 years.

Now, one of every 10 things we eat comes from another country. The widening gap between the farm and the fridge keeps food prices low by taking advantage of cheap labor and economies of scale. It allows us to eat healthier food by making fresh produce, meat and seafood available year-round.

The gap also opens our kitchens to new dangers. Our food passes through more hands and more machines, often in developing nations. Each link in the chain presents the potential for contamination and makes it more difficult to trace problems to their sources.

Outbreaks of illness are rare. In the United States, we are much more likely to die of the effects of eating too much food than from eating contaminated food.

And the zest we get from international food choices - sushi, sauerkraut, sopa de albondigas - may outweigh the risks of an occasional bad batch of imported beef.

But there are hidden threats. On the global scene, one of the most insidious is lead, a toxic metal that can slow the minds and bodies of children in their most vulnerable years. Lead has largely disappeared as a health threat in food made here. It persists as a problem in other countries - countries where we, in effect, are shopping for our groceries.

Over the past two years, The Orange County Register investigated the Mexican candy business. Just as sauerkraut, sushi and sun-dried tomato pesto worked their way onto the American menu, candies with names like Tama Roca and Super Palerindas have found homes on U.S. grocery store shelves.

Register reporters analyzed thousands of documents, conducted hundreds of tests and interviewed people in all aspects of the candy business. We found that many candies contain lead. And we found that the food-safety system is not positioned to protect us.

Mexican candy makers almost never are inspected by regulators there, and their products seldom are tested by U.S. health officials. The tests for lead are costly and time- consuming. Most importantly, the health effects of lead aren't readily apparent. The system is set up to react to immediate, obvious threats.

The most immediate threat weighing on the minds of the agents of food protection in post-Sept. 11 America is bioterrorism. Food experts say it's too soon to tell if the stepped-up hunt for anthrax and smallpox will help or hurt the overall goal of food safety. One thing is clear: The contents of our shopping carts are changing faster than the mechanisms to protect food from threats, intentional or accidental.

The National Academy of Sciences convened a commission of food experts from government, academia and private enterprise in 1998 to perform a top-to-bottom review of food hazards. It devised seven recommendations. Trade on-site inspec tions for more and better food testing, for example. Make the 12 overlapping agencies that look at food responsible to one official.

Six years later, none of the recommendations has been adopted.

One commission member was Marsha Cohen, a UC Hastings law professor who has served as a staff attorney for Consumers Union and president of the California State Board of Pharmacy. She put the current state of food protection into perspective.

"Our food-safety statutes were written in a whole different era," Cohen said. "A lot of things that can kill us you can't necessarily see just by looking, and we're not using the right tools to help us find them."

Copyright 2004 The Orange County Register