US chocolate manufacturers were on the defensive yesterday [Wednesday] as the American Environmental Safety Institute (AESI) filed a lawsuit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleging that confectionery giants such as Mars, Hershey, Nestlé USA and Kraft Foods North America are exposing consumers to dangerous levels of lead and cadmium in their products.

AESI president Deborah A. Sivas, a director of the Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic and a Lecturer on Law at the Stanford University Law School, explained at a courthouse news conference: “Our scientific research clearly shows that chocolate products contain lead and cadmium, heavy metal poisons also known to the State of California’s health experts to be hazardous to human health.

“The chocolate manufacturers have neither taken appropriate actions to remove potentially dangerous levels of lead and cadmium from their chocolate products, nor notified consumers of the health risks from toxic lead and cadmium.”

With this in mind, the AESI insists that chocolate products require special labels under California’s Proposition 65, the state’s consumer health initiative statute that requires warnings be given before consumers are exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals.

The AESI, a non-profit California corporation founded in 1998, is also seeking civil financial penalties to punish the violations of Proposition 65, which can be assessed at up to US$2,500 per day, per violation. 

Roger Carrick, the AESI’s attorney, said: “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.

“Anyone can buy the same products, have them tested and they would come up with the same results as our research showed. We believe the chocolate companies have roughly the same data as we do,” Carrick concluded.

The major companies named in the lawsuit together control over 80% of the US chocolate market, and responded angrily to suggestions that they have purposefully ignored threats to consumer health.

“People have been eating chocolate safely for hundreds of years,” said Michele Corash, an attorney for the US Chocolate Manufacturers Association.

Federal health officials have also dismissed the claims that chocolate products are unsafe. Attorney General Bill Lockyer conducted his own investigation into the subject in 2001, and commented: “It is unusual for the Attorney General to publicly state that he has reviewed a matter under Proposition 65 and determined that it is not appropriate to proceed on the claim. 

“Nonetheless, because these (chocolate) products are consumed by so many Californians, we think it is important for the public to be aware that the Attorney General’s decision not to commence a civil action in this matter is based on a conclusion that the action would lack merit, after thorough consideration by this office.”

Dr. F. Jay Murray, former member of the Proposition 65 Scientific Advisory Panel, added: “There is absolutely no basis for these claims. The simple fact is that traces of lead, cadmium and other minerals cause no harm and are part of the natural make-up of foods, including fish, meats, grains, fruits, vegetables and chocolate.

“Chocolate is a perfectly safe, enjoyable food that is in full compliance with all US and international food safety regulations.”