FDA could lower candy lead limit

City health officials say proposal aimed at tainted Mexican sweets lacks enforcement bite


In an effort to combat potentially tainted sweets produced in Mexico and sold widely in American groceries, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a proposal yesterday to reduce the threshold for lead in candy.

But Baltimore health officials - who had planned to push for state legislation to attack the problem after lead-tainted candy was found in the city this fall - said they were concerned the federal rules wouldn't have enough impact.

The federal guideline recommends lowering the limit for lead in candy from 0.5 parts per million to 0.1, a standard pushed by advocates in Baltimore and other places the spicy sweets are sold. The recommendation is a draft guideline and would become final in 2006, after a mandatory 75-day public comment period, said FDA officials.

"We think that producers of candy ingredients will be compelled to take additional steps to insure that lead is prevented," said Michael Kashtock, a senior adviser at the FDA.

Local health officials said the move is a step in the right direction but criticized it for lacking enforcement powers.

"The FDA is not promising that it will take candy that is higher than the limit off the market," said city Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein. "The FDA has broad jurisdiction. It could take things off shelves. They could penalize distributors. They've done it before."

Kashtock said the guidance doesn't include enforcement because it's too difficult to have a "one-size-fits-all approach" to various candies. He said the agency has met with Mexican officials and is hoping to prevent tainted candy from coming across the boarder.

"If they are going to send out a standard, they should make sure it sticks," said Sharfstein, "and not only at the border but in cities like Baltimore."

The FDA's announcement comes just months after Baltimore health officials and Latino community advocates began encouraging shop owners to stop selling candies that have consistently tested high for lead. Just last week, the Baltimore Health Department said it was working with lawmakers to introduce legislation to toughen regulations to 0.1 parts per million.

Sharfstein said that, in light of the FDA guideline, the agency is still considering a bill that would enforce standards but is rethinking the scope of the legislation.

Health officials decided to take on the issue through legislation after candy sold in Baltimore revealed "levels of concern" after testing. The brands included Lucas Pelucas, a spicy tamarind fruit candy; Baby Lucas, a sweet and sour powder; Super Fresaletas; a strawberry-flavored lollipop; and Super Pinaleta, a lollipop coated with chili powder.

Acting FDA commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach said the threshold would further reduce an "already minimal risk" of lead exposure in candy, but Sharfstein said the risk was hardly small.

"There's a way of looking at the risks, for example, that only 1 percent of the candies are elevated," he said. "But if that 1 percent includes your child's favorite candy, they could be in trouble."

Elevated blood lead levels can cause hearing loss, brain damage and behavior problems in children.


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