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Toxic candy still being sold

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SANTA ANA, Calif. — Nearly three years after the candy giant Mars Inc. said it stopped producing a line of Mexican candies because of dangerously high lead levels, the products are still available in California and still contaminated.

The state Department of Health Services warned this past week that Lucas Limon and Lucas Limon Con Chile, made by a Mexican subsidiary of Mars, were recently found at the site of a candy distributor/importer in San Jose, Calif., and may be still available in stores.

Another Mexican candy, Tama Roca Banderilla, made by a different manufacturer, also tested high in lead, state officials said.

Lucas Limon and Tama Roca were among 112 lead-contaminated candies that were the subject of an Orange County Register investigation three years ago. The Register found that state and federal regulators had known for a decade about the candy but did little to warn the public or remove the products from stores.

Since then the California Attorney General's Office negotiated a landmark settlement with major candy manufacturers, including subsidiaries of Mars and Hershey, who agreed to get the lead out of their food products. The state Legislature approved a bill to make it a crime to sell lead-laden candy. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reduced its allowable lead level in candy.

The state warned consumers about Lucas-brand salted candies — Lucas Limon, Lucas Acidito and Super Lucas — in August 2004. At the time, state officials stopped short of telling stores to pull products off shelves, saying they were labeled as seasonings and therefore legal. The popular children's products are packaged in small plastic salt shakers with bright-colored labels.

An attorney for Mars said the Lucas candies must be old product.

"They haven't made this candy or sold it since 2004, and they previously voluntarily withdrew the product from the market," said Robert Falk, who represents Mars-owned Masters Foods USA, which distributes other Lucas products.

"People shouldn't be selling it."

Health advocate Leticia Ayala, who has been fighting to get lead out of candy since 2002, was skeptical the company truly stopped selling the candies. She criticized the company and state health officials for allowing a voluntary recall rather than requiring that candies be removed from stores.

"This is really damaging the image of all the other candy manufacturers that are trying to do the right thing by lowering the levels of lead," said Ayala, who works for the San Diego-based Environmental Health Coalition. "This lead in candy issue has primarily impacted the Latino community, and you see a lack of attention to this. It is unfortunate that the laws are not there for all children."

State Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Horton warned that consumers, particularly infants, young children and pregnant women, should not eat the candies popular among the state's growing Latino community.

"Lead is toxic to humans, especially infants, young children and developing fetuses ... and can result in learning disabilities and behavioral disorders that could last a lifetime," Horton said. "Today's warning is part of our ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of foods sold in California."

Lea Brooks, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services, said officials are concerned about the tainted candies but do not have the legal authority to recall them. She said the San Jose distributor, Marquez Bros. Inc., has voluntarily agreed to recall the candies they sold.

State Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, demanded that state officials explain why the candies are still available.

"That is absolutely unacceptable," said Correa who plans to call a hearing on the subject. "The state needs to be held accountable for this. (The state) did an unsatisfactory job of policing themselves or implementing a simple solution, which is to get rid of tainted candies."

The recent state testing was a result of legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 to better regulate candies. The Lucas products had lot codes that confirmed they were manufactured in 2004 before the state health warning, state officials said.

Pregnant women and parents of children who may have consumed these candies should consult with their doctor to see if medical testing is needed, the state said.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.