THE CANDY MAKERS Use of lead-tainted ingredients in some candies made in Mexico raises ethical questions. MORELIA, MEXICO Workers in the Dulces Moreliates candy factory flatten globs of sweetened tamarind and chili paste into long, sticky sheets. They roll them together tightly and cut them into slim, brown coils that look like sleeping snakes. Hence, their name: Serpentinas. Hair tucked under caps and faces masked, crews nearby prepare the wrappers - rolls of plastic designed with bright orange lettering. Serpentinas are popular treats in Mexico and among Latinos in the United States. Orange County's ethnic markets, convenience stores and big chain stores all carry them. But there is something dangerous about the way these candies - and others in Mexico - have been made. Something about the recipe. Tests show that chili powder, tamarind and ink in wrappers all have had levels of lead that can cause brain damage in children who regularly eat Mexican candies. At least eight Mexican candy companies have been penalized by U.S. health regulators for producing candy that tested high for lead. State and federal agencies have issued public- health advisories, forcing stores to pull the candies off their shelves and change their candy- making methods. But instead of cleaning their candies for kids everywhere, some companies have made a cheaper choice. They sell candies that can be dirty and prone to high lead levels to kids in Mexico. When they make a product for export, they switch gears. At the Serpentinas plant last summer, that meant workers scrubbed the candy- making machines. They pulled out stores of more costly, sterilized chili and clean apple pulp. They whipped up a different batch of Serpentinas - still a sleeping snake but without the poisonous bite. Then they wrapped the harmless candies in clear, transparent plastic, minus the toxic ink. Same candy, two recipes. One tastier, cheaper and often registering toxic lead levels for the Mexican market. The other more bland, more expensive and formulated to pass muster with U.S. health regulators for export across the border. Both versions of Serpentinas, and many other candies made two different ways, are sold in Southern California markets, sometimes without the manufacturer's knowledge, an Orange County Register investigation found. In the case of Serpentinas, the two versions come in different packages. But in other cases, candies are packaged in a way that prevents parents from telling the difference between a clean candy and one that might poison their children. And within any given bag of candy, each piece is different. The lead shifts and settles during the mixing of ingredients, so some pieces will test high while others will test lead free. As a result, a simple candy purchase becomes a game of Russian roulette. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and California regulators have known about the problem of different versions at least since 2002, internal memos show. Yet, they have not done comparison testing of the two versions, including Serpentinas. They haven't worked with companies in Mexico to make sure the two versions are easily distinguished. And they have done almost nothing to address the problem of these candies crossing into the United States. Over the past three years the FDA, which screens food products at the border, has averaged fewer than four candy tests per month, according to records. The Register tested 180 samples of Mexican candy for this series from 25 distinct brands. Eight brands, or 32 percent, had high lead levels. For today's story, about 70 candy samples from seven brands were tested because they are made two ways. Some candies were bought in their original Mexican-market packaging. Others were bought directly from distributors and candy makers in Mexico before the candies crossed the border. Four of the seven brands measured high for lead in Register tests. In some cases, the lead levels were six times California guidelines. In all of these candies, the levels measured so high that a child's lead consumption would surpass acceptable daily levels, as set by the FDA, with a single treat. Register tests of sister products meant for sale in the United States came out clean. The few candy makers who admit to making candy two ways point to economics, cultural preferences and different food-safety requirements. Products shipped to the United States have to meet specific standards for filth, food colorings and lead content. Mexico has similar guidelines in some areas but does not have the regulatory muscle to enforce them or to educate the industry. Mexican health agencies lack the resources to license or inspect all the country's candy makers, and candy testing is rare. Mexico has taken action against candy makers when prompted by sanctions in the United States. ...snip... ===== Okay, I think anytime now, pseudobrit, mactastic or IJReilly will come along and say that GWBush has something to do with why lead candies are being sold in Mexico (and the US). Let's see... could it be that GWBush is doing it through his buddy Vincente Fox?