Wegmans Markets Replaces Reusable Bags After Group Cites High Lead Levels

Wegmans Food Markets Inc., owner of a chain of East Coast supermarkets, said it will replace reusable shopping bags after a consumer group found the sacks had high levels of lead.

Wegmans will post notices in its 76 stores and on a website as soon as today, offering consumers a replacement, Jo Natale, a company spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview. More than 725,000 bags were sold at stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland, she said.

“The message to other companies is lead may be in their products,” said Judy Braiman, president of the Empire State Consumer Project in Rochester. “They should be doing their own testing now.”

Braiman’s group buys products in stores to test for toxic metals such as lead and cadmium. The Chinese-made green Wegmans bag with a pea design, sold for $1.29, showed lead at levels eight times higher than permitted by New York law, she said.

Wegmans notified the group of the decision to replace the bags in a phone call yesterday, after company tests confirmed the lead, Braiman said. “Green Pea” and “2009 Holiday” reusable bags were removed from stores starting Sept. 3, Natale said.

The green Wegmans totes being replaced contain lead at 799 parts per million, Braiman said, citing tests by Paradigm Environmental Services Inc. in Rochester. Red and purple bags showed less than 2 parts per million, according to an Aug. 12 lab report. A black Wegmans tote had 59 parts per million. State law limits lead to as high as 100 parts per million.

Safety, Health Risks

“This is not a food-safety issue,” Natale said. “It does not present a public-health risk. Even so, we are very committed to the environment, to sustainability, and decided to err on the side of caution.”

New York is one of 19 states with a law to limit the amount of toxic metals in packaging, according to the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse in Brattleboro, Vermont. The group’s model law suggests the combined total of lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium be limited to 100 parts per million.

Wegmans isn’t aware of regulations covering reusable shopping bags and now is rewriting internal standards for the bags based on the New York law, Natale said.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates household goods, permits lead in children’s products as high as 300 parts per million. That limit drops to 100 parts per million next year.

A separate federal rule limits lead paint in children’s products to 90 parts per million. The CPSC is considering new limits on cadmium after recalls of children’s jewelry and drinking glasses sold by McDonald’s Corp.

Lead Testing

Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in 2008 after levels of lead in imported toys prompted recalls. The law requires manufacturers to use independent labs to test products before being sold in the U.S.

Braiman said her group is testing bags from TJX Companies Inc., owner of TJ Maxx; Michaels Stores Inc.; Tops Markets LLC; and Waste Management Inc.’s “Bagster,” sold at retailers such as Lowe’s Cos. and Home Depot Inc.

“It’s an amazingly ubiquitous metal,” said Caroline Cox, research director of the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland, California, group that found lead in jewelry, toys, lunchboxes, diaper powder and chili-flavored chocolates.

In 2005, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer used the state law to negotiate a recall of Chinese-made vinyl “Spiderman” and “Superman” lunchboxes with Fast Forward LLC, which distributed through retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., JC Penney Co. and Sears Holdings Corp.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net.

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