Search of Latino Stores Finds No Unsafe Candy

Maria Hille, left, of the D.C. Department of Health discusses the dangerously high levels of lead in some Lucas products with Delmy Gonzales, owner of La Colmenita, a store in Adams Morgan that does not carry the treat.
Maria Hille, left, of the D.C. Department of Health discusses the dangerously high levels of lead in some Lucas products with Delmy Gonzales, owner of La Colmenita, a store in Adams Morgan that does not carry the treat. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

District health officials prowled many of the stores in Adams Morgan yesterday that carry plantain chips, tamarindo candies and other Latino specialties in search of one particular treat that is dangerous to children.

The thumb-size shakers of Lucas Limon -- a sweet-and-sour powder made in Mexico that kids love to "waterfall," or knock back whole -- were found in one store earlier this week by a congressional staff member studying dangerous food imports.

The 39-cent candy -- meant to be a seasoning for fruit, ice cream or chips -- has been targeted in other cities across the United States after health officials found it contained six to seven times the maximum amount of lead a person can safely consume in one day.

Gregg A. Pane, director of the D.C. Department of Health, said no packets of the treat were found yesterday by Health Department employees who visited about a dozen stores along Columbia Road NW. "Hopefully, this was an isolated find," Pane said.

One mother who ran into the health workers was surprised by the news yesterday.

"Lucas Limon? Yes, I buy that for my kids," said Maria Diaz, who was stopped by a health official while running her errands.

"Don't buy it for them anymore," said the Health Department's Maria Hille, who handed Diaz a flier with pictures of the candy.

Diaz, whose eyes widened when she learned about the powder's lead content, said she usually buys it in Mount Pleasant. Hille said she would canvass that neighborhood today.

Amy Lowenthal, a food safety lawyer, found the green and yellow shakers when she and other staff members of the House Committee on Government Reform scanned local markets that stock products imported from Mexico and Central America.

As soon as they found the candy, the staff members sent a letter to the Health Department, which issued a health alert and hit the streets yesterday.

Pane said he met with executives of Mars Inc., which owns the plant in Santa Catarina, Mexico, where the product was made. The powder that was found this week was about five years old, and Mars pledged to work with the city to rid stores of the substance, Pane said.

The company voluntarily stopped making the powder in August and several weeks ago went to 18 Adams Morgan stores looking for any packets remaining on shelves, said Alice Nathanson, a spokeswoman for Masterfoods USA, the Mars subsidiary that made the candy.

Lucas candy came in a variety of flavors, including Super Lucas, Lucas Acidito and Lucas Limon, both plain and with chili. Lead comes from the soil in which chili peppers are grown, but Lowenthal said the metal was found in the salt as well.

Delmy Gonzalez was not worried when health officials came into her little store, La Colmenita, yesterday. She said she has never carried the powder.

"But I feel really good that they come here and check it out. This is one thing I like about America, that they check on things like this and try to make the children safe," Gonzalez said.

Pane recommended that parents whose children have been eating the powder call the Health Department at 202-671-5000 and possibly have them tested for lead poisoning.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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