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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trader Joe’s sued over claims chocolate has unsafe lead, cadmium levels

Trader Joe's is being accused of “deceptive and misleading business practices.” (Charles Krupa/AP)

Two store-brand dark chocolate products made by grocery chain Trader Joe’s have unsafe levels of potentially toxic heavy metals, according to a new pair of class-action lawsuits out of New York.

A New York man and woman in separate suits accused the popular grocer of “deceptive and misleading business practices” over its marketing of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate and Trader Joe’s The Dark Chocolate Lover’s Chocolate, according to the lawsuits filed Wednesday in federal courts in the Eastern and Western Districts of New York, respectively.

The lead plaintiffs in each suit, Thomas Ferrante of Brooklyn and Tamakia Herb of Manhattan, allege the grocery chain failed to disclose to consumers that the two chocolate products contain dangerous levels of cadmium and lead. Overexposure to lead can cause myriad health problems in children and adults, including lowering children’s IQ. Cadmium, considered a probable human carcinogen, can cause kidney, liver and bone damage.

In both suits, the plaintiffs cite a Dec. 15, 2022, story in Consumer Reports warning that although dark chocolate is known to have certain health benefits, the chocolate industry has struggled to lower cadmium and lead levels in its products. Consumer Reports measured heavy metal levels in 28 dark chocolate bars and found five had above the safe threshold for both cadmium and lead, including one from Trader Joe’s.

California-based Trader Joe’s did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment about the lawsuits.

How much lead is in your chocolate?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers cadmium to be a “cancer-causing agent” and warns that exposure over time through air, food, water and tobacco smoke “may build up cadmium in the kidneys and cause kidney disease and fragile bones.” The CDC also holds that “no safe blood lead level in children has been identified” and that even low levels have been found to impair “a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”

In its test, Consumer Reports found that Trader Joe’s “Dark Chocolate Lover’s Chocolate 85% Cacao” contained 229 percent of California’s maximum allowable level of cadmium and 127 percent of the state’s threshold for lead. The company’s “Dark Chocolate 72% Cacao” was found to contain 192 percent of the its benchmark for lead.

Lead and cadmium have been difficult to rid from dark chocolate products because cacao plants can take in cadmium from the soil as they grow, while lead is found on the outer shell of the cacao bean post-harvest, according to Herb’s lawsuit. But it isn’t “inevitable,” that they would be present in dangerous levels, her filing says, since other dark chocolate brands were found to have levels that met safety standards.

Ferrante’s lawsuit claims that Trader Joe’s must have known about the chemicals and deliberately failed to disclose them. The grocery chain tests its products for safety and also receives documents from the suppliers of ingredients it uses about the chemical levels in those products — information that consumers have no way of knowing.

“These documents and their own testing alerted Defendants to the present [sic] of harmful chemicals, such as lead and cadmium,” the filing states. “Accordingly, Defendants had exclusive knowledge of the lead and cadmium levels in the Products. …”

Cocoa’s child laborers

Herb’s lawsuit also notes that Trader Joe’s positions itself as catering to health-conscious shoppers and as a “consumer-friendly” brand, using handwritten signs, employees in Hawaiian shirts and a curated product roster to bolster that impression. “Accordingly, consumers trust that the limited selection of foods offered by Defendant have been vetted for their safety for human consumption,” her lawsuit states.

Both lawsuits contend the grocery chain violated New York laws banning deceptive practices, false advertisement and unjust enrichment, and seek unspecified compensation and punitive damages. Ferrante’s also seeks damages that could total hundreds of dollars per sale, while Herb’s asks that Trader Joe’s be barred from selling the products until they are “accurately labeled.”

Herb’s attorneys filed a similar lawsuit last month against Hershey, which makes another of the chocolate bars that were flagged in the Consumer Reports testing. Hershey’s “Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate” was found to have 265 percent of California’s maximum allowable dose of lead.

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