The state attorney general of California has accused Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and ten other California grocery stores of selling ginger and plum candies with dangerously high levels of lead.

Amid the recent fervor regarding GMO-based foods, this case punctuates the growing importance of food labeling, especially as it pertains to children and pregnant women, who face a greater risk of lead poisoning.

While Lynda Gledhill, the attorney general's press secretary, said the lead levels were sporadic — "meaning it wasn't something that was naturally occurring" — the nature of this case poses the greatest threat, because pregnant women often enjoy ginger candy during their pregnancy and children are, no doubt, notorious candy eaters.

California's Proposition 65 states businesses must disclose to consumers the harmful toxins found in food, toys, jewelry, and other products — a disclosure that the suit argues never happened.

As the Santa Cruz Sentinel reports, the retailers have been notified of the lawsuit, and the state is expecting a response in June.

Lead poisoning occurs from a gradual build-up of lead in the body. In children under the age of six, the risk is especially pronounced due to the underdeveloped nature of the brain.

A pregnant woman's exposure to lead can also put an unborn baby at risk. Lead that is inhaled travels into the woman's bloodstream and enters the fetus' bones through the placenta, where it can then accumulate in the developing organs. As the lead builds up in the fetus' brain, developmental problems later in life become more likely.

Women who have been exposed to lead prior to their pregnancy, and especially during it, should consult their doctor to determine if the lead levels represent a danger to the fetus. Unfortunately, there is no universally established treatment for women who already exhibit elevated lead levels.

However, there are numerous preventative measures women can take to ensure their pregnancy remains healthy and lead-free, such as regularly handwashing, using cold tap water (to minimize the risk of older pipes, where lead can stay stagnant in warm water), and getting regular prenatal check-ups to ensure the health of both the baby and the mother.

So far, Trader Joe's has not pulled from its shelves the Uncrystallized Candied Ginger named in the lawsuit. Whole Foods is investigating the contamination within its supply chain, and the company said customers who purchased the candy can return it for a full refund, spokeswoman Jennifer Marples confirmed.

If the manufacturers fail to remove or reduce the lead levels, they will be required to print a cautionary label on the candy's packaging. Another alternative is removing the product altogether.

"Stores are the ones in the hot seat," Ann Grimaldi, an attorney with law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge, said yesterday.

Ultimately, the increasing demand for transparency in labeling gives consumers more control over how they spend their money.

Grimaldi also forewarns people about being too cautious, citing the naturalness of the lead as opposed to older forms of contamination, as seen in lead-based paint.

"It's a root," she said of the candy. "You're going to naturally expect there to be chemicals. You can literally walk down the street and breathe more lead."

Here is a full list of companies named in the lawsuit:

  • 99 Ranch Market: Red Lantern Plum Candy, Sliced Sweet Ginger, Sweet and Sour Prune, Sweet Fruit Dried Plum, Dried Plum, Dried Seedless Plum, Kan Rose Plum,Preserved Plum
  • Food Market: The Ginger People Baker's Cut Crystallized Ginger Chips Island Pacific Supermarket: Dried Salted Prune
  • JFC International: Dynasty Sugar Ginger
  • Kam Lee Yuen: Ginger Candy, Plum Candy, Red Plum Candy
  • Lion Supermarket: Sweet Fruit Ginger, Seedless Plum, Sweet Fruit Sweet Plum, Sweet Fruit Dried Plum
  • Marina Food: Sweet Fruit Ginger, Sweet Fruit Licorice Lemon Ginger
  • Reed's: Reed's Crystallized Ginger
  • Target: Archer Farms Crystallized Ginger
  • Trader Joe's: Uncrystallized Candied Ginger
  • Whole Foods Market: The Ginger People Baker's Cut Crystallized Ginger Chips, Whole Foods Bulk Ginger