A lawsuit was filed in May saying that chocolate contains levels of lead and cadmium that could be dangerous to children. The American Environmental Safety Institute went to court in Los Angeles claiming that some of the nation’s largest candy makers have known about the presence of the heavy metals in their products, but have not done anything about it.

“We will prove in court that the chocolate companies have knowingly and intentionally exposed consumers, especially children, to potentially dangerous levels of lead and cadmium without providing a clear and reasonable warning of the health risks,” says Roger Carrick, the institute’s attorney. The suit names Mars Inc., Hershey Foods, Nestle USA, Kraft Foods North America, See’s Candies and Rocky Mountain Chocolate.

Lead and cadmium are known to be toxic, particularly to young children who can suffer physical and psychological problems from low-dose chronic exposure. Research studies have shown that children exposed to certain heavy metals, such as lead, can lose IQ points over time if levels exceed certain thresholds.

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring warning labels on chocolate as called for under Proposition 65, a California law requiring warnings to consumers who may be exposed to harmful chemicals. “Lead has been proven to produce insidious damage to health because it threatens the normal development of mental faculties and normal social behavior, especially in children,” says Dr. Marc Lappe, director of the Center for Toxics and Ethics.

The reaction to the lawsuit from the candy industry says the naturally occurring levels of lead and cadmium are too low to cause any problems in humans. “People have been eating chocolate safely for centuries. Creating false health scares about food that is safe does not protect anyone ? it is just misinformation,” says Dr. Doug Archer, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida and food safety consultant for Grocery Manufacturers of America.

The Chocolate Manufacturers Association says traces of heavy metals are found in most foods, and exist at levels that don’t pose a health threat. “This lawsuit is simply a shameless attempt to exploit a well-intentioned law for financial gain,” says Michele Corash, counsel to some of the companies named in the suit. “California’s Proposition 65 was intended to provide reassurance to the public, not to enable exploitive attorneys to raise fear, uncertainty and doubt for their own selfish ends.”

The environmental institute says that lead, cadmium and other heavy metals can pose a threat at even the smallest amounts, and they pointed to the fact that the World Health Organization had urged that chocolate contain no more than 0.02 parts-per-million, or ppm, of both lead and cadmium. It says it has found lead or cadmium in 68 percent of the chocolate products it tested with levels ranging from below the 0.02 ppm level to as high as 0.105 ppm.

“Anyone can buy the same products, have them tested and they would come up with the same results as our research showed,” Carrick says. “We believe the chocolate companies have roughly the same data as we do.” They say the lead found in chocolate is not necessarily naturally occurring and could come from sources in the manufacturing process or from the fertilizers and exhaust from farm vehicles in foreign countries that run on leaded gasoline.

In the face of this lawsuit, candy manufacturers may have no choice but to stop selling chocolate in California. Will California become a ?dry? state, as far as candy is concerned? Will bootleggers and pushers end up selling the stuff illegally from paper bags in public parks? Stay tuned.

Worried about what you eat? Read ?Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers? by Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston, click here.

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