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UCSF study: State mandated lead testing bumps imported candy to top of contaminated food list

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A study conducted by researchers at UC San Francisco found that 34 percent of the candy that generated health alerts was imported from Mexico. (Courtesy Photo)
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Lead tested in imported candy triggered more health alerts issued statewide in a 14-year-period than were issued for Salmonella, E. coli and Botulism combined — the top three sources of foodborne contamination.

A study conducted by researchers at UC San Francisco and the California Department of Public Health published today shows that 60 of a total of 164 alerts for food contamination issued by state public health officials between 2001 and 2014 resulted from lead contamination.

Of those 60 alerts, 55 pertained to imported foods, with almost all alerts (96.6 percent) issued to warn consumers about imported candy. The study’s results come in the midst of National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week and as households nationwide prepare for Halloween.

The study intended to analyze the effectiveness of a 2006 law enacted in California that mandated a community surveillance program, making lead-testing in candy more widespread.

To evaluate the program’s outcomes, the group of researchers analyzed the number of CDPH health alerts issued six years prior to the law’s enactment and in the seven years after it was widely implemented.

Their findings showed a significant increase in health alerts issued after the program was mandated. From 2008 to 2014, health alerts related to lead found in candy comprised nearly 42 percent of a total of 116 alerts issued. In comparison, just 22 percent of 48 total lead contamination health alerts issued between 2001 and 2006 were traced to candy.

The study also found that almost all of the candy flagged for lead was imported. In the 14-year period analyzed, most of the candy that warranted health alerts was imported from Mexico (34 percent), China (24 percent) and India (20 percent).

According to the study, some 10,000 children under age 6 in California are poisoned by lead each year. Prior to the candy surveillance program, efforts to reduce children’s exposure focused on lead found in gasoline, industrially contaminated soil or lead-based paint.

The study points to imported candy as being a potential public health risk for lead poisoning in California, but researchers warned that because it is not comprehensive, the lead contamination in candy and other products on the market could actually be much higher.

“As more lead sources are identified, we must develop prevention approaches for all of them, and not just replace one prevention approach with another,” Dr. Margaret Handley, a professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UCSF and one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

Still, the policy changes mandating active monitoring of candy for lead contamination can result in recalls before they are consumed, Handley said.

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