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Concern Over Tainted Candy Grows Within Chinese Community

Posted: Aug 12, 2012

Last month, the California Department of Public Health warned consumers to stay clear of a certain type of plum candy imported from Taiwan, in which they have discovered trace amounts of lead that exceed state health and safety standards. The distributor, Roxy Trading Inc., headquartered in Pomona, has since recalled the product. However, according to the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), a consumer watchdog group based in Oakland, the problem of unsafe candies is more widespread.

CEH contends that there is not one but 14 plum and ginger candy products imported from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong that are currently on the market and have been found to contain dangerous levels of lead. CEH is urging state and federal health officials to take immediate action to protect consumers, particularly children and pregnant women, from these toxic treats.

The news may come as a shock to the Chinese American community, where plum and ginger candies are a common snack. Even more troubling is the fact that many pregnant Chinese women choose to eat the candies to avoid nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.

Berkeley resident Annie Tsang, 52, is a Chinese immigrant from Guangzhou who came to the Bay Area 30 years ago. "My family loves having them as a treat, and we always keep some at home. As for Chinese pregnant women, most of them love to have sour snacks during pregnancy, and ginger or plum candy is one of the options. I personally ate them often when I was pregnant 20 years ago."

Another Chinese immigrant, Winnie Ouyang, 50, works at a post office. She says the plum and ginger candies are especially appreciated by the older generation of Chinese. “My mom enjoys eating them. She and her friends are very fond of these little treats,” she said. “I hadn’t heard about the report, but now I plan to tell her about it, for sure."

Yolanda Stern, 64, is half Chinese and half Spanish, and she frequently buys the candies. “A few days ago, my friend was calling me after she watched the news (about the candy recall) because she knows I’m a big fan. I threw them all away after my friend’s phone call.”

On the policy side, California has deemed candies with lead levels in excess of 0.10 ppm (parts per million) to be contaminated, in accordance with Proposition 65 (the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act) which was approved by voters in 1986.

14 of 19 packages of plum and ginger candy that CEH purchased from Bay Area grocery stores last February and June were tested and found to contain lead levels above the legal threshhold. The amount of lead found in the candy varied wildly from package to package, ranging anywhere from four to whopping 96 times the maximum allowable amount.

All 19 treats tested by CEH were made in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan and are brands sold at Lucky, 99 Ranch Market, Lion Supermarket, Marina Foods and San Pablo Supermarket. The candies with lead problems were distributed by Asian or U.S. suppliers including JFC International Inc., Kam Lee Yuen Trading Co. Inc., Queensway Foods Co. Inc., Continental Trading Co. (Hong Kong), Dayou Trading Co. (Taiwan), and Sanh Yuan Enterprise Co. Ltd. (Taiwan).

Research Director of CEH, Caroline Cox, says lead is a neurotoxin that can cause numerous health problems such as learning disorders, brain and nerve damage, hearing problems, stunted growth, and digestive problems. Lead can also delay puberty in women and decrease sperm production in men. "Lead is a problem for everyone -- men, women and children -- but most health professionals are mainly concerned about the impact of lead on children,” she said. “Lead damages the developing brain so that children who are exposed to lead have learning and behavior problems that are permanent; the problems will be with them for the rest of their lives."

"Recent research has shown that the time when a child is most sensitive to lead is during pregnancy, when the child is still inside the mom,” added Cox. “The baby is exposed to lead when the mom is exposed to lead. That's one reason why we are really concerned about these candies."

On August 6, CEH sent 60-day notices of violation to five stores three U.S. distributors known to carry the Taiwanese candies that were found by DPH to have unsafe lead levels: Marina Foods, Lions Supermarket, SaveMart Supermarkets (Lucky), Shun Fat Supermarket (San Pablo Int’l Market), 99 Ranch, Kam Lee Yuen (distributor to 99 Ranch), Queensway (distributor to 99 Ranch), and JFC Intl (distributor to Lucky).

When New America Media reporters visited 99 Ranch market in Richmond on August 7, a day after the CEH notice of violation was issued, at least four of the recalled products were still on the shelves.

Christine G. Cordero of CEH was quick to point out that the businesses have 60 days to remove the items before facing any potential legal actions. “From what I've experienced, the stores are usually willing to cooperate with us."

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