The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) is advising people not to eat calabash chalk, a traditional remedy for morning sickness, because samples tested have revealed high levels of lead. The Agency is also taking immediate action to remove the product from sale.
Calabash chalk, also known as La Craie, Argile, Nzu, Mabele or Calabar Stone, is eaten by some pregnant women, traditionally those from the Nigerian and wider West African community, as a remedy for morning sickness.
Exposure to high levels of lead by pregnant and breast feeding women poses a risk to the mental development of the unborn baby and breast-fed infant.
The Food Standards Agency's Dr Diane Benford said: "We are strongly advising that people stop eating calabash chalk, particularly pregnant women and breast feeding mums, who appear to be its main consumers. They are particularly relevant, because the risks from exposure to lead are greatest for the unborn and developing child."
The FSA was made aware of the problem by the London Borough of Greenwich after results of local sampling indicated high levels of lead. As a precaution, the Agency took five further samples from ethnic shops and markets in London.
The levels found in these samples were found to exceed 4.5 fold World Health Organisation safety guidelines for exposure to lead from food, the environment and other factors.
The chalk can be bought in ethnic shops and markets in the form of blocks, pellets and powders. There are no particular brands, batches or best before dates.
A Food Hazard Warning has been issued by the Agency asking Environmental Health officers to remove any chalk found in their area from sale.
The Agency also intends to raise with the European Commission the possibility of proposing EU-wide measures to prohibit the sale of Calabash chalk.